What we’re missing when we simplify MLK’s life and legacy

January 16, 2023

Associate Professor Terri Laws thinks honoring Martin Luther King Jr. must start with a more thorough reckoning with his thought, his place in history and his relevance for today.

A portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. standing at a podium
Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol about the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Credit: Library of Congress

Like most Americans, UM-Dearborn Associate Professor of African and African American Studies Terri Laws finds Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech inspiring. But it’s the first two thirds of the speech rather than the oft-quoted “flourish” of its conclusion that speak to her most deeply. Indeed, review the text and you’ll see King spends most of the speech laying out a persuasive moral argument for civil rights based on the most cherished principles of the country’s founding documents. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” King said. “This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

Laws thinks our tendency to focus on the more quotable, rhetorically uplifting parts of the speech are indicative of a larger cultural impulse to simplify King — to lionize the less controversial parts of his life and philosophy and diminish or erase his more complex, often radical ideas. Earlier this month we chatted with Laws about this topic, why she thinks King is particularly relevant today, and why her connection to him feels personal. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


So I noticed you have a quote from King in your email signature. And it’s not the kind of inspirational, universal-truth-type quote you often see featured or misquoted. It reads, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death." Tell us why that quote is important to you.

Associate Professor Terri Laws
Associate Professor Terri Laws

That’s actually been my signature for years. I did make the font red at some point! But it’s been with me for a long time because it’s really representative of the work I try to achieve. The biggest area of my research is health inequity and health disparities, which is a multifaceted and interdisciplinary field. In addition to exploring how systems create inequalities, I am interested in moral aspects of eliminating health inequity and how African American religious thought and practices as collective action contribute to correcting inequality, whatever the cause. This particular quote shows the breadth of Martin Luther King. To the best of our understanding, he said this in 1966 at a press conference before he addressed an interracial medical group that was trying to push for healthcare as a human right. That group was important because there had long been segregated associations for medical professionals and segregated healthcare, and so here we see King doing the work we saw him doing in every other area of life, namely, to locate inequality where equality needs to be. This was, of course, at a time when terms like health disparities or health inequity did not yet exist, so it was very forward looking.

The key word in the quote is “inhuman,” and it’s interesting to me, because the quote is sometimes written instead with the word “inhumane.” But scholar Charlene Galarneau, who had an interest in this particular quote, did some research to figure out what he actually said, and it appears that he said “inhuman.” This matters, one, because King gets misquoted so often, but also because “inhuman” is a much deeper concept. We have so many examples of people wanting to see him in more benign ways, and to me, for him to say “inhuman” showcases the more radical King. To say that something is “inhumane,” that’s a word we use more broadly to express judgment about a certain meanness in behaviors, including toward animals. But to say something is “inhuman” means someone is failing to see the humanity of a person at all. It is an entirely different level of disrespect and devaluing to judge that people aren’t even deserving of life.

And as you mentioned, it’s an example of this larger issue that American culture has reshaped King to be a simpler, less challenging, less controversial figure than he actually was. Can you talk more about that phenomenon?  And in the interest of complicating the story, can we dive into some of the areas where popular images of King fall especially short?

Well, my frame of reference for this is often my students, who are typically coming in with fairly limited knowledge of King. So, for example, when I’m teaching African American Religious Experience, and we get to that part of Black religious history, I want students to understand that he’s more than “Reverend King who preached.” In many sectors of our society, religion has been diminished, so students need to understand the historical, public role of the pastor in Black communities. And this particular pastor is a Ph.D.-prepared systematic theologian. King has undertaken deep study about the nature of God and God’s relationship to humans, and he has the training to argue and reform doctrines. As an outgrowth of his beliefs and research, one of the central themes of his preaching, writing and activism is that despite the inferiorities that Black people have been taught about themselves, God made you as a person and Black people are equal beings in the eyes of God. He then takes this concept of personhood and makes an argument based on the foundational documents of the United States. That’s what makes the entirety of the “I Have a Dream” speech so important. In saying that the United States has given Black folk a check that we can’t cash, he’s making a statement that there is a birthright to this equality. There is a divine birthright. But there is also a legal and civil birthright based on the creeds that are foundational to the type of society we claim to stand for.

Another example that I often see in my students is how they contrast King with Malcolm X. Students are very interested in Malcolm X, and not to oversimplify things myself, but they think he’s so cool! Some are interested because of his conversion to Islam, which may be something of specific interest to our campus, and the religious diversity among Africans and African Americans. Some students are interested in Malcolm X’s outspokenness. Some are interested because they connect him with the Black Power movement. But most often, for them, he’s set in contrast with King. To them, King believed in equality and nonviolence through passive methods, and Malcolm is radical and willing to consider defensive violence so he’s the cool one. 

But if you look at, say, the origins of the term “Black Power,” the story is more complicated. We know that the phrase Black Power was popularized by Stokely Carmichael, who was then a leader in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and it comes out of this march that took place in 1966. A man named James Meredith became the first Black student admitted at the University of Mississippi. Later, he decided to do a march across the state as a march against fear. A sniper shoots him on the first day, and so King and Floyd McKissick of the Congress for Racial Equality go to Memphis where Meredith is hospitalized. They talk with him and they decide that they are going to continue the march for him. As they are visiting with him, Carmichael shows up, and by this point, he is getting a little tired of the nonviolence philosophy, though they all agree that they’re going to try to do this march. All along the way, however, they’re having these deep conversations about the continuing use of nonviolence as a strategy, which King thought was critical to keeping the movement an interracial one. But during the march, Carmichael and Willie Ricks, who was thought to be the originator of the term Black Power, start this chant: “What do we want? Black Power!” And King is pretty disappointed. He saw Black Power as a slogan, and one the media would not be willing to let go of. He argued for the slogan to demand “Black Equality.” Carmichael argued that it had to be power, because power is what is used against us. King’s concern was when you put white power against Black power, you’re inviting a clash, and he felt deeply this had to be an interracial movement.

My point is this was a nuanced, complex, real debate they were having. Furthermore, King and Carmichael had a good enough relationship where they were actually talking about these things. King, as well as other ministers, continued to evolve their version of the slogan. In the Detroit Studies course, for example, I have assigned a King essay in which he lays out his explanation of Black Power. It’s important in that class for his connections to Detroit as an economic engine and for the political skills learned through Black participation in the labor movement. So you can’t just make it an easy narrative, like Malcolm X is cool, and King is not. Fill in what’s behind the narrative, don’t reify it, and understand it in all its fullness. 

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X stand side by side surrounded by people in the hallway of the U.S. Capitol.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X have a chance encounter in the hallway during the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was the first and only time they met. Malcolm X was assassinated the following year. Credit: Library of Congress

That’s super fascinating. How about one more example of an area where you think our perceptions of King would benefit from a deeper reading of history.

I don't think we give enough attention to how much he was really unpopular — even among people who we commonly think of as allies of the Civil Rights Movement. In particular, King started making connections between economic conditions in our country and what was happening with the Vietnam War. For him, spending money on a war, in which we were disproportionately drafting Black Americans and killing people of color, was money that could then not be spent at home to alleviate the inequitable conditions for the same people in this country. That lost him the favor of President Johnson, which meant that he had to decide whether he was going to stop making these connections, or risk putting the movement in jeopardy. As a moral thinker, he is unable to disconnect himself from the immorality of a war that was harming people both around the globe and in this country. King was interested in full Black citizenship and humanity, but when he turned to economic inequality and matters of national concern that moved beyond race, that made him unpopular, and we forget that. And even thinking of the famous audio of Bobby Kennedy landing in Indianapolis, announcing that King has been shot and has died. The crowd gasps in horror. But this was the same man who, as attorney general, signed off on federal surveillance of King when FBI Director Hoover saw him as a security threat to the nation. 

These are the kinds of complexities we don’t think about when we only focus on the version of King that we apparently have decided is the version that K-12 students, or the parents of K-12 students, can accept. But my experience is that students are ready for controversies. They’re ready to learn about a deeper King than the one they learned about in 4th grade and the one they hear about leading up to the third Monday in January. I think we do a disservice to ourselves as a country when we only tell the clean parts of our history, because we’re missing an opportunity to reflect on what that means for the present moment and where we’re going as a nation. Even then, it can be a challenging exercise. For example, every year, folks ask questions about what King would think about contemporary subjects. I don’t typically join in those conversations. Ethically, it’s difficult to do more than guess the moral stance across generations. That said, as someone who studies inequity and culturally based tools to help eliminate inequality, and who is a couple of generations removed from my students, I often think about the types of social investments that were made during my youth, like investments in public schools and expanded rights. So I think understanding the complexities of King’s thought helps today’s generations make decisions for their own forms of activism and what gaps they want closed for themselves and for their children. 

Well, that begs the question, what do you think about commemorations like MLK Day?

First, I would say my relationship to King is something that is intellectual, spiritual, but also deeply personal. I’m not a King scholar; I’d consider myself sort of a King hobbyist, and as a young person, much of what I learned about him were things I learned because I was driven by my own curiosities. I have had friends remind me that before King’s birthday was a holiday, I would do things like search newspapers for what happened in the days following his assassination. Later in life, I went to seminary at a place in Atlanta that Daddy King and Benjamin Mays, one of King’s mentors, had helped start. 

Regarding commemorations, part of me has come to understand that commemorations occur on lots of different levels. Honestly, how I feel right now is for the people who need the specifics of that day, even if it’s a more cursory version, let them have it. It’s ultimately more important to remember than to labor over the specifics of how we remember. For me personally, one of the most important ways commemorations can occur is as the ritual of remembrance, and specifically, in a way that helps us move to what’s next. Given this specific moment in our history, this is a time for us to really decide as a nation where we are going. In the last year of King’s life, he wrote a book called “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” and he’s really asking, are we going to live these values that we say we want to live and by what methods and strategies will we pursue them? Today, we can’t even elect a Speaker of the House, we can’t do the people’s business, because we are arguing about who we want to be. In political polling, more Americans are willing to say they believe violence can be an appropriate response to disagreement with our government. That’s where we are right now as a country, and it’s not dissimilar to 1963. 2023 marks the 60th anniversary of the Birmingham Campaign; Kennedy’s speech on civil rights legislation, which Johnson carried forward after Kennedy was assassinated that November; and the March on Washington, the most famous event of that pivotal year. And so there’s an opportunity to reflect more deeply about what King had to say about his own similar moment in history, to see if there are moral guideposts for our own way forward. 


Terri Laws is an associate professor of African and African American Studies. Her teaching and research interests include Women's and Gender Studies, inequality, race and health, and religion and health. Interview by Lou Blouin.