[For this year’s MLK Day series, starting as always with my annual post on remembering the full King, I wanted to return to that source, focusing on a few under-remembered moments from King’s tragically brief but strikingly full activist life. Leading up to this special weekend post on a handful of King’s 21st century heirs!]
On five figures who carry King’s legacy into the 21st century (along with the five I highlighted in this post):
1) Coretta Scott King: As I referenced in that post, King’s widow continued his work immediately after his assassination and throughout the next few decades, becoming a leader of the movement throughout the 70s and 80s and into 90s as well. But it’s not just that she passed away in 2006 and thus also represented a bridge to 21st century figures and activisms; in 2005, just a year before her death, she supported and helped found an institution to carry forward that work very overtly: the Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom at Antioch College in Ohio.
2) Reverend William J. Barber II: As co-chair and leader of the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign, Reverend Barber is the figure most directly carrying forward King’s work (especially in that final year of his life, as I discussed in Friday’s post). But the legacies and parallels don’t stop there—Barber’s work in organizing and running both the Moral Mondays movement and the Breach Repairers organization represent two of the most prominent and inspiring examples of a 21st century civil and human rights leader and movement that I know of.
3) Stacey Abrams: As I discussed in Tuesday’s post on “Give Us the Ballot,” voting rights was perhaps the most consistent cause across King’s career as a civil rights leader and activist, and no 21st century figure is carrying forward that legacy than Abrams. That’s not simply because she’s fighting for voting rights so powerfully, both in her individual voice and work and through organizations she’s founded such as Fair Fight. It’s also and especially because Abrams, more than any other contemporary figure, seems to recognize as King did that the right to vote is an essential human right, full stop.
4) Ibram Kendi: Like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, and so many others before him, King was (as I argued all week) as much an author and scholar as an activist and organizer. In 2021, no author and scholar better illustrates King’s legacy than Kendi, who weds anti-racism theory and practice to historical scholarship, and who in his new role as the director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research will be helping so many young activists and scholars extend those legacies even further into the 21st century.
5) José Antonio Vargas: I wrote about Vargas in that prior post hyperlinked above, but I needed to include him this time too, for the simple and crucial reason that civil rights activism isn’t and has never been limited to questions of race. That doesn’t mean that African American issues and contexts aren’t specific and central, which they certainly are; but Vargas’ work for undocumented immigrants, all immigrants, and inclusive definitions of American identity also reflect what King understood well: that the fight for civil rights is a fight to extend and guarantee those essential rights to all Americans, and the most vulnerable of us most of all. One of many King legacies we desperately need to carry forward in the 21st century.
Spring previews series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other MLK heirs or legacies you’d highlight?