Capitol Thoughts
Capitol Thoughts Archive

Legacy and Legend by Janaye Ingram

Jan 20, 2012

This past week has been a week filled with remembrances of Dr. Martin Luther King. On Saturday, I spoke at an MLK Day Prayer Breakfast along with Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. On Monday, National Action Network hosted two events. The first was a breakfast in DC honoring Berry Gordy, founder of Motown; Alexis Herman, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton and currently with New Ventures; James Mitchell, Jr., of GE; Maurice Cox, formerly of PepsiCo; and Thomas Waller, of Wal-Mart. The second event was a Public Policy Forum in New York at NAN’s House of Justice. Then, just yesterday, Rev. Sharpton spoke at the Black Agency Executives’ King Day luncheon. Throughout the week, people have talked about Dr. King’s legacy and what the day should mean for us all. But much of what is focused on in schools and in the media is Dr. King’s infamous and legendary speech during the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom or what is commonly called the “I Have a Dream” speech. Thinking about this speech which is iconic and legendary and also thinking about the man and his legacy, it made me wonder about the two words and if they were related.

“Legend” comes from the Latin word, legenda which means “things to be read”, while “legacy” comes from the Old French, Middle Latin word legate which means “appoint by last will”. These two words, while often thought of as being similar and sometimes being used almost in a synonymous fashion, have two very different meanings. Legends, when you think of other uses of the word, can be stories that can’t be verified. Synonyms of the word are “myth” and “fable”. When something is “legendary” it is something that is celebrated or described in a legend. The legend of the civil rights movement for far too many is Dr. King and his “I Have a Dream” speech. I say that because for countless people, that is what the work of Dr. King and the many others who stood and fought beside him has been reduced to. For some, thinking about Dr. King is synonymous with thinking about that speech. The March on Washington has lost its focus. No longer was it about marching for jobs and freedom, in fact, many don’t know what the aims of the march were. No longer did A. Philip Randolph initiate the plan for the march and many, especially younger generations, are completely unaware that James Farmer, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young were just as much a part of that march as Dr. King. I’ll go a step further and say that most young people don’t know who most of those men are.

And so the “legend” or the “thing to be read” of Dr. King and the civil rights movement focuses heavily on that speech, that while iconic, does not truly represent the legacy of Dr. King or the civil rights movement as a whole. The speech, and in actuality, the portion of the speech that most people are familiar with, focused on a dream, a vision that Dr. King had for this country.
In it, Dr. King referenced hope and faith, but as the Bible says, “faith without works is dead”. Dr. King was not just a dreamer and the Dream speech was not just about inspiring others to dream. He was a man of action, strategy, and empowerment and while he told everyone about his dream at the urging of Mahalia Jackson, he spent much of his time and energy devoted to carrying out a plan that would achieve this dream.

Dr. King’s legacy should be bigger than the Dream speech and it should also be bigger than one holiday, especially in the black community. I am not saying that the day to celebrate Dr. King is not enough. But I believe that we should espouse the qualities of Dr. King not only on King Day, but throughout the year. The legacy, or what Dr. King “appointed by last will”, is that we should continue to fight for justice, we should continue to fight for the poor, we should continue to fight for quality education, we should continue to fight for worker’s rights, and we should continue to fight for equality. In some of the last few speeches before his death, Dr. King laid out his legacy. In his Drum Major Instinct Speech, he told us that if we were to say that he was a drum major, that we should say he was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. He told us that he wanted “to leave a committed life behind”. If Dr. King was our drum major, if he was our leader, our motivator whose legacy we aspire to keep alive, shouldn’t we do more? Shouldn’t we pick up his drum sticks and beat our drums throughout our communities? At National Action Network, it’s what we strive to do every day. But there are 42 million black people in America and National Action Network neither alone or combined with other civil rights groups has even half of that as members even though we should. Our communities are dying, we as a people are failing, and we have allowed the legend of Dr. King’s speech to overshadow our responsibility in carrying out the legacy that he left behind.

I’d venture to say that too many people are the people he was talking to in his penultimate speech, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”. We have far too many Rip Van Winkles in our communities who are asleep as a revolution is being waged right outside of their bedroom window. In the words of Dr. King, “too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.” There is a revolution going on in our own backyards and too many are asleep. But we can’t afford to have them sleep through it. If we want better education, if we want better healthcare, if we want jobs, if we want homes to live in, if we want a decent wage and pension, if we want the ability to start our own businesses, if we want the opportunity to build wealth in our communities – we need people to wake up. It’s time. The alarm clock is ringing. It’s time to rise and for each of us to shine so that we can be a glimmer of hope for generations to come.

As Dr. King said in the last speech he gave, “we’ve got to stay together.” It is time for us to not only wake up to the revolution going on outside our doors and inside our communities, but we have to stand shoulder to shoulder – putting differences aside for the greater good. We need unity and “we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.” Some thought the end was having the right to sit at a lunch counter or drink from a water fountain. Some thought the end was to have blacks who could break that glass ceiling in corporate America. Some thought the end was electing a black President. But the end is bigger than all of that. The end is when our children can read beyond their grade level, not below it. The end is when young black males are educated more than they are incarcerated. The end is when we live below our means and are able to build wealth that we pass on to our children instead of leaving them in worse conditions than we lived in. The end is when we support black businesses. The end is when we have black women who aren’t raising black babies alone. The end is when we don’t kill each other more than we give to each other. The end is when we don’t have to worry about people trying to take away the rights we’ve gained and strides we’ve won. Too many fit the description of the Levite and priest in the story of the Good Samaritan as described by Dr. King. Too many people say, “if I help someone else, what’s going to happen to me? If I give this homeless person this $20, what will I do for lunch today? If I go to tutor these kids, I’ll miss out on this happy hour.” But what we need to say is, “if I don’t help this person, if I don’t help my community, what will happen to them?”
This is the legacy of Dr. King, the legend will forever live on as the Dream speech is played time and time again. But for us to celebrate Dr. King and not carry out his true legacy is a disservice and dishonor to him, the work he did, and the standard he left behind. And while Dr. King had been to the mountaintop and see the Promised Land, we still have a long and winding road ahead of us. We will get there, but it’s going to take us waking up and beating our drums for education, jobs, peace, health care and equality. It’s time we reclaim the legacy and create our own legends so that future generations will be stronger, wiser, and better off than we are.