What Martin Luther King’s Legacy Looks Like in Today’s World

The civil rights leader’s words still resonate – if we’re willing to listen, experts say.


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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. waves to the crowd, 1963.

One hundred years from the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the living conditions of the black community as “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” These were some of the first sentiments expressed in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but they have been de-emphasized in public consciousness, explains Dr. Quincy Mills, Director of Africana Studies at Vassar College.

 Dr. Quincy Mills

Grueling non-violent action drove wins like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. But after the 1965 Watts rebellions, Dr. King altered his vision of a beloved community to incorporate the poor and working class, indicating freedom was nothing without power, and power was nothing without economic security, Dr. Mills says. In King’s speech “I Have Seen the Mountaintop,” he encouraged black people to leverage their collective $30 billion economy, a pointed rhetoric that intensified until his assassination.

Colin Jarvis, Executive Director of the Newburgh Ministry — a non-profit agency serving homeless and low-income individuals — sees up close what life is like for the disenfranchised. He describes it as a “constant balance on a high-tension wire.” Young people, facing staggering unemployment, develop a sharply intelligent skill set that is difficult to harness for the professional world. For perspective, Jarvis points to the number of black people in jail due to crimes of economic desperation.  

For change to take place, Jarvis urges “there have to be intentional decisions made at a systems level to deliberately break the cycle. For that to happen, and for blacks and whites to walk together hand in hand, there needs to be value given that extends beyond skin color.” 

Mills recommends living wage increases  to increase economic mobility. According to a report by consumer research firm Nielsen and Essence magazine, African American purchasing power will reach $1.3 trillion in coming years. If higher-income African Americans spent one of every 10 of those dollars at black-owned businesses, a million jobs could be created, according to a report by the Kellogg School of Management. 

When asked what Dr. King would have thought of the Black Lives Matter movement, Dr. Mills points out that “King would likely try to get involved as he did with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, but they may not have followed him. These groups don’t necessarily want to be preached to, and we have to remember that King was a preacher.”

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