MLK day fails to encompass leader's radical legacy

Last Monday, the Carnegie Mellon campus community celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with eight events planned throughout the day. Together, the events, coordinated by Student Affairs, made for a satisfying lineup of activities to engage the campus community in discussing diversity. Students read their work at the “15th Anniversary Celebration for the MLK Writing Awards”, and President Subra Suresh made an appearance during a listening tour on diversity.

It was good to see Carnegie Mellon’s Student Affairs invested in providing quality, educational events for students and faculty alike to attend. However, these and similar events nationwide sometimes fail to truly explore and evaluate the depth of Dr. King’s legacy.

As Americans, we sometimes forget the deeply radical nature of Dr. King’s work. This is partially due to the difficulty of acknowledging how blatantly and overtly racist our society was even a few short decades ago, especially given that racism still exists today.

Though reflecting on Dr. King’s more straightforward inspirational messages is easier than evaluating the whole of his passionate and revolutionary work, it does a disservice to a great American leader.
Dr. King’s impact extends far beyond his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and it certainly extends beyond some idyllic version of colorblindness, which is too often used as a crutch to avoid discussing race in America today. Dr. King utterly remolded the way American society works. He and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement ended the absolute terror of living as a black American, especially in the South. For the first time in American history, mainstream culture was made accountable for the way it treated black Americans and all Americans of color.

It is easy to slip into the rhetoric that paints Dr. King as a passive leader, especially because he was such a passionate proponent of nonviolent tactics. However, Dr. King’s work was a radical example against thoroughly overwhelming odds of resistance towards injustice, a fact which should be reflected in MLK celebrations at Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere.