Martin Luther King Jr.’s Moral Call to America

In honor of Black History Month, three members of the Batten community who participated in the School’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations reflect on the activist’s legacy.

Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.
Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. 

Every morning in middle school, Marrissa Jones heard the pledge of allegiance read over the intercom. As the students around her rose, she remained seated. “I didn’t realize then that I was protesting,” she says. While she knew all too well the ideal of a nation with liberty and justice for all, her own experience had shown her that the reality was often quite different.

Jones, who graduated from UVA in 2019 with a degree in global public health and recently became the Batten School’s first social equity advisor, thought of those moments on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, when she took part in Batten’s celebration of the famous minister and social organizer. In honor of both the holiday and the approach of Black History Month, Batten’s dean, Ian Solomon, spearheaded a four-hour Zoom event that allowed participants to steep themselves in King’s words.

The celebration was especially moving for Jones, who says she didn’t have the chance to study King until college. “And even then, it was just the classes I chose to take,” she says. “We often gloss over Black history.”

Feeling that the Batten School could benefit from an event that encouraged deeper engagement with King, Solomon says he aimed to evoke the power of an immersive experience he had with activist’s ideas many years ago. He recalls playing King’s speeches over and over on CDs during his commutes to Capitol Hill, where he served as legislative counsel to then-Senator Barack Obama. “I remember how profound and complicated and rich and meaningful and provocative those speeches were,” Solomon says. 

Each of the event’s three speakers—Solomon, Jones, and Batten professor Paul Martin—selected one of King’s works and played him reading it aloud. Although the celebration included some discussion, its core was the liliting and steely force of King’s voice, accompanied by dozens of faces of Batten faculty, students, and staff: each floating in a separate Zoom rectangle, but united in a state of deep, silent concentration. 

“It was a little bit like being in temple or church or listening to a dharma talk together,” says Solomon.

King has become an almost holy figure in the United States. Like Jones, Martin says he has few early memories of studying the activist’s words. Still, he remembers revering the Nobel Laureate for Peace as a kind of saint. “He was up there with Gandhi,” Martin says. A 2019 poll showed that 90% of Americans view King favorably. 

But Solomon notes that many of us have experienced King’s ideas in a “watered down” and “sanitized” form. People often misinterpret his revolutionary vision of equality as an argument for practicing “color blindness,” he says; some have even used it to oppose policies like affirmative action

In fact, King was a radical, Solomon argues. Jones agrees: When he was assassinated, she notes, his approval rating was abysmally low—among white people, around 25%. King opposed the Vietnam War and called attention to the perniciousness of income inequality across all races, which concerned white elites. At the time of his death, he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which advocated for policies like a fair minimum wage and unemployment insurance. He was also in favor of universal basic income, now a popular policy topic. 

It’s important to remember that King was a master of protest strategy as well, says Martin, who teaches courses on advocacy and policy implementation at Batten. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin’s reading of choice for the event, King offers a glimpse of the enormous amount of planning that went into the protests he helped organize; participants trained intensively in how to respond to the police with nonviolence, and the time and place for each demonstration were painstakingly and strategically decided.

“As casual observers, we often watch his protests and think of them as reactive, but he was actually very careful and tactical,” Martin says.

Although his approach to protesting has important implications for today’s human rights demonstrations, one of King’s most powerful legacies is a little less tangible: his indictment of the American failure to live up to our ideals, Jones says. When she thinks about what inspired her to stay seated for the pledge of allegiance, she remembers one disillusioning day in eighth grade geometry. She realized two white boys seated behind her were snickering. “I heard them saying, ‘n-word, n-word, come pick my cotton,’” she recalls. Although Jones had noticed she was the only student of color in her class, “I got straight As. I heavily participated,” she says. “I had thought, I’m equal to these people, I’m as smart as these people, and there’s no way they’re going to see me as anything else.”

In the King speech Jones chose to share—a precursor to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech—he highlights that dissonance. At one point, he describes America as “tragically divided against herself,” a country that puts forth a revolutionary vision of democracy but lives out its “antithesis” in the form of slavery and segregation. The reverberations of those policies continue to this day. “I think King would say there’s a lot more work to be done,” Jones says.

For Solomon, King’s ability to name that quintessentially American contradiction makes studying his work an ethical necessity, especially for policymakers and leaders.

“Our future depends on what we make of his strong moral call that we live out the promise of this country,” Solomon says. “My hope is that he inspires us to be bold: We need to recognize that if we fail to deal with issues of equity, this country will never be true to its highest ideals."

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