Late last year, 88-year-old Clarence Jones found himself in the ICU for 17 days for what turned out to be a heart condition. From his hospital bed, the former personal attorney and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. began reflecting on his own life, then it hit him: King would have turned 90 this year.
He had the idea of gathering together people who had worked with King, along with a host of younger leaders.
“I thought there would be no more fitting tribute to Dr. King than those of us to come together and reflect on what his legacy meant to us and the world,” said Jones, who penned an early version of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
King was born Jan. 15, 1929, the same year as Anne Frank. When he was killed in 1968, he was 39 years old – younger than Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams are now.
Were he still alive, even at 90, King would be younger than Jimmy Carter. Younger than Cicely Tyson. Younger than Harry Belafonte.
Monday’s celebration of King allows the nation to honor the life of a kid from Auburn Avenue who went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize and get a holiday named for him posthumously.
But the nice round number of 90 also invites scholars, social activists and veteran civil rights leaders to consider King’s messages of racial equality, economic justice and political and social transformations through the lens of today’s lingering problems.
Earlier this month, Jones’ round-table of three dozen past, current and future leaders met at Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in California. They talked about the erosion of past gains and bemoaned what he called the “repetitive routine” that annual King celebrations have become.
“We watch in anguish as many achievements toward a more just and equal society we believed were secure are being eviscerated in front of our eyes,” Jones wrote in the document “A Call to Conscience on the 90th Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.,” published after the gathering. “In this hour of constitutional crisis and moral emergency, do we wish to truthfully honor Dr. King’s life and further his legacy? If we wish to honor Dr. King, we must shake the foundations of our grotesquely unequal social and economic order.”
Reporters at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached out to some of the people who signed on to the document, as well as established and budding civil and human rights activists, to talk about King’s legacy and his relevance 90 years after his birth.
For Bernard Lafayette — a veteran civil rights worker who was with King on April 4, 1968, the day he died — it’s clear.
“It would be a different world if he were still alive.”
Clarence Jones, founder of Gandhi King Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice, which is based at the University of San Francisco, and organizer of King retreat
“The nation tends to get into a repetitive routine about celebrating Martin Luther King. Most of the celebrations have one thing in common — they want to sanitize who he was. They want to distill it. But when they distill it, they take out the essences of who he was. He was the baddest brother of the 20th Century.”
Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College
“We’re facing terrible times. The shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, people painting swastikas on tombstones in Jewish cemeteries and graveyards, made me think of the shooting at Mother Emanuel in South Carolina. But my father used to say, ‘Evil is never the climax of the story.’ We may come into a time when things are grim, but we shouldn’t stop and say, ‘I give up.’ We change and persist.”
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor Ebenezer Baptist Church
“Part of why we are drawn to Dr. King is that he managed to be on the right side of history, while living history. There is an integrity to his vision for humanity that cohered. It drove the civil rights activists to also be concerned about Vietnam. It showed the connection to militarism and poverty and the larger issue on race. He was a living canon. I am inspired that he called upon us to resist a cruel logic of a fear-based world. Fear is driving us now. That is why we can’t get the obvious things done. We fail to listen to him at our peril.”
Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance. Poo says King’s core message of human dignity is the foundation of her organization’s work.
“Nannies who take care of our children, home-care workers who protect and care for our elders, women maintaining order and sanity in our homes as housekeepers, they are making it possible for us to go out and do our jobs, but they are working for poverty wages and without protections in the workplace. They usually have no benefits, no safety net and no protections from sexual harassment. So, the people we are counting on to take care of us can’t take care of their own families, their basic human dignity is compromised. … He would be on the front lines building this movement with us. He knew these issues of racial inequality were fundamental to the devaluing of the work and of the women who do this work. The struggle for civil and human rights and dignity at work are one in the same.”
Clayborne Carson, Stanford University professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute
“The civil rights struggles went on for more than 50 years prior to the 1960s. You don’t just stage a protest and get major civil rights reform. You have to stay in it for the long haul. It may take another 50 or 60 years to achieve results. But you have to be in it for the long haul and celebrate every victory you get.”
Bernard Lafayette, chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Auburn University professor
“People thought the problem with racism was over when Obama got elected. Some people got too relaxed. And the young people who lived through the Obama Administration had a whole different view and had no idea of the racism incubating that is shown through our current president. Racists were ready to burst out. … If Martin, John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X had lived longer, they would have come together as a coalition and things would be totally different. Martin Luther King would have the influence around the world to also get that kind of support in other countries as well. Only one person is celebrated more than Martin Luther King, that is Jesus Christ himself.”
Latosha Brown, founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, an Atlanta-based voter advocacy group that she said was built on the teachings of King
“Most of my work has been shaped by Dr. King. (Civil rights leader) James Orange was one of my mentors, so the shaping of my political ideology and work was heavily influenced by Dr. King. That is why I do civil rights, voting rights and social justice work. I believe that he was a prophet and his prophetic voice is as relevant now as it was then. There have been those who wanted to mainstream his message and not talk about his positions on the inequity in economics, or policing and or militarization. But I love the radical King.”