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Historian urges us to resist the 'cuddly' version of MLK and remember true legacy

In this April 22, 1965 photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to the joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature in Boston, the day before he led a civil rights march to Boston Common. (AP)
In this April 22, 1965 photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to the joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature in Boston, the day before he led a civil rights march to Boston Common. (AP)

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. as a relentless fighter for equality and justice is being distorted, says historian and Harvard Law Professor Annette Gordon-Reed.

The "On Juneteenth" author spoke at the 52nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast on Monday. This is the second year the event was held virtually because of the pandemic.

This year’s event celebrated Black women and their roles in resisting white supremacy. Gordon-Reed commemorated the Black women throughout history who participated in the abolitionist movement, as well as women who were the economic and social backbone for their families and communities.

“The interesting thing about Black people is that we have founding mothers and founding fathers: Douglass, Tubman, Sojourner Truth,” Gordon-Reed said. “Men and women participating on an equal basis, however they could, to try to advance Black people.”

Gordon-Reed said the fight for justice today is in a critical state, alluding to the stalled federal voting rights legislation, which faces opposition from all Senate Republicans.

The Freedom to Vote Act would overhaul some of the more restrictive state voting laws, which tend to disproportionately target Black voters. If passed, the bill would expand voting hours and guarantee access to mail-in voting. Another part of the bill would restrict partisan gerrymandering.

“We’re in a situation where there is a retrenchment and people want to take things backwards,” Gordon-Reed said. “The question about Black citizenship is once again on the table.”

King spoke out against white supremacy, militarism and economic injustice under American capitalism. But increasingly, Gordon-Reed says, people from across the political spectrum have turned King into a “cuddly figure” who preaches a wellness version of social justice rather than one that requires hard work and sacrifice.

“Those kinds of things had been watered down by people who actually were hostile to the message of equal humanity of all people,” Gordon-Reed said.

Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu also spoke at the breakfast memorial. Wu congratulated local Black women who made history this year, such as Kim Janey, who served as Boston's first Black and woman mayor, and Rachael Rollins, who is the first Black woman to serve as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts.

Organizers of the MLK breakfast plan to hold two more events to celebrate King in March and April.

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Yasmin Amer Twitter Reporter
Yasmin Amer is a business reporter for WBUR.

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