Yearly Reminder: Dr. King Had A Lot More To Say Than That One Sentence

My (apparently) annual reflections on "The content of their character" day

Kudos to SLT for this beautiful and slightly ambiguous photo of a statue of MLK.
I love that it can be interpreted as the great man emerging from the dark
OR the dark overtaking him and hiding details from our view.

Another Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day is upon us. And for me, this marks a bit of an anniversary as well. It was a little more than a year ago that our hosts were gracious enough to let me start contributing to OTB again. One of my first posts from that time addressed the pattern of right-wing and populist politicians celebrating their version of the great man’s legacy; a legacy neutered and boiled down to one of the most famous English sentences of the twentieth century: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

My issue was not with the value or importance of that quote, but rather how decontextualizing it* from the rest of the “I have a dream” speech, let alone the rest of Dr. King’s work, robs our memory of the revolutionary aspect of Dr. King and turns the man into a symbol to be claimed by people who would have resented his work then and most likely would resent the man today if he was still with us. Case and point, see this recent work by MAGA troll-painter Jon McNaughton:

[A painting of Dr King that defies description and was created to troll the libs.]
Extra troll points, I guess, for the belt buckle. Beyond that GFY.

Yeah… I got nothing for this. Moving on.

Actually, before moving on from Twitter, I need to give it up for Ben Shapiro, of all people. The well-known galaxy brain took a step away from revolutionizing the field of political science to acknowledge (1) Dr. King in fact held a lot of revolutionary viewpoints, and (2) also that those viewpoints are intentionally memory-holed by most on the right because they don’t fit their worldview:

You see, the right does celebrate his legacy, but only for the parts they like. Which just happens to be… checks notes… one sentence.

Yet, if we are being honest, those same revolutionary edges also create a lot of discomfort on the center-left too. Especially when his views are tied to “scary” (for some) concepts like Critical Race Theory (which definitely builds upon Dr. King’s work). Many will point to historic moments that prove how far we have come since the March on Washington, in particular, Obama’s historic presidency and now Hakeem Jeffries’s position as the Minority Leader of the House. Surely those great leaps forward would moderate Dr. King’s fire and he’d be ready to get onto the feel-good “character” part. Surely, Dr. King would reject CRT as it appears to run in direct opposition to that holy sentence.

I’m a firm believer that if one wants to play hypotheticals with an ancestor, it’s best to look to their own texts for clues about what they might think of today’s events. Amazingly, returning to the body of the “I have a dream” speech, one finds this passage that reminds us that despite how far we have come, how much work remains to be done:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, when will you be satisfied? We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: for whites only.

We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
H/T to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg for calling out this passage in a recent tweet.

While some of these things have been addressed (thankfully there is generally no need for a green book anymore), some of those sentences are still very much at the center of our current discussions about the realities of being Black in America. Yes, there have been improvements, but Black Americans still are disproportionately impacted by the Criminal Legal System and, as of the 2020 census, trailing all racial groups in terms of intergenerational wealth building. And, then there are the efforts to suppress black voters across the county too.

So, call me crazy, but I tend to think that, while he’d acknowledge the very real progress made, were he with us today, Dr. King would still put all the focus on the work that was yet to be done. And I imagine that message might go a little like this:

“Now to be sure there has been some progress, and I would not want to overlook that. We’ve seen that progress a great deal here in our Southland. Probably the greatest area of this progress has been the breakdown of legal segregation. And so the movement in the South has profoundly shaken the entire edifice of segregation. And I am convinced that segregation is as dead as a doornail in its legal sense, and the only thing uncertain about it now is how costly some of the segregationists who still linger around will make the funeral. And so there has been progress. But we must not allow this progress to cause us to engage in a superficial, dangerous optimism. The plant of freedom has grown only a bud and not yet a flower.

It is now a struggle for genuine equality on all levels, and this will be a much more difficult struggle. You see, the gains in the first period, or the first era of struggle, were obtained from the power structure at bargain rates; it didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate hotels and motels. It didn’t cost the nation a penny to guarantee the right to vote. Now we are in a period where it will cost the nation billions of dollars to get rid of poverty, to get rid of slums, to make quality integrated education a reality. This is where we are now.

MLK: The Three Evils speech:

Arguably, I think the one thing that might change about Dr. King’s approach would be to make more efforts to tie the plight of Black folks to that of poor White folks.

During my late teens I worked two summers, against my father’s wishes—he never wanted my brother and me to work around white people because of the oppressive conditions—in a plant that hired both Negroes and whites. Here I saw economic injustice firsthand, and realized that the poor white was exploited just as much as the Negro. Through these early experiences I grew up deeply conscious of the varieties of injustice in our society.
Hat tip to OTB Commenter Gavin for this reference!

Dr. King was already taking steps towards that prior to his assassination, standing in support of organized labor unions. And being an astute politician and organizer, this would be a natural evolution (which was also signaled in the “Three Evils” speech as well). But despite that, I don’t think forging those alliances would have greatly tempered the man’s revolutionary aspirations. Because if we take it at face value that he dreamt of a world where his children might be judged for the contents of their character, then we must also take it at face value that in order to be satisfied that we reach that world justice must first “roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

And given that it’s taken us generations to get where we are, some might say starting around 1619 (if not before), it’s going to take us generations to heal those harms and make amends.

Still, all good work is generational, and working towards equity is indeed good work.

In the meantime, a contemplative Dr. Martin Luther King Jr day to all who observe it. And if you are looking for a good read, Responsible Statecraft has a provocative short essay on the continued relevancy of Dr. King’s anti-war views.

(Or, perhaps just chuckle at the well-intentioned, if not executed, artistic celebration of the great man and his wife that just debuted in the city where they first met. It’s a testament to “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” or “maybe someone should have mentioned when they cast the mold how at least from some angles it really doesn’t look like what was intended.”)

* – Reducing Dr. King to a sentence is not unique to the Right. As we were reminded in 2020, there are many of my fellow travelers on the more progressive end of the spectrum who seem to think that the thing he wrote was “In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?

FILED UNDER: History, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Matt Bernius
About Matt Bernius
Matt Bernius is a design researcher working to create more equitable government systems and experiences. He's currently a Principal User Researcher on Code for America's "GetCalFresh" program, helping people apply for SNAP food benefits in California. Prior to joining CfA, he worked at Measures for Justice and at Effective, a UX agency. Matt has an MA from the University of Chicago.


  1. DK says:

    Yet, if we are being honest, those same revolutionary edges also create a lot of discomfort on the center-left too. Especially when his views are tied to “scary” (for some) concepts like Critical Race Theory (which definitely builds upon Dr. King’s work).

    Thank you for this, and for the Responsible Statecraft rec.

    “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the White moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
    Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  2. DK says:

    “White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society…The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and racism…”
    Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  3. DK says:

    “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power. A nation that continues year after year to spend more $ on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death…”
    Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

  4. DK says:

    “The crowning achievement in hypocrisy must go to those staunch Republicans and Democrats of the Midwest and West who were given land by our government when they came here as immigrants from Europe. They were given education through the land grant colleges…

    “These are the same people that now say to black people, whose ancestors were brought to this country in chains and who were emancipated in 1863 without being given land to cultivate or bread to eat; that they must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps…

    “What they truly advocate is Socialism for the rich and Capitalism for the poor…”
    Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

  5. DK says:

    “…for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country, even today, is freedom and equality and that racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.”
    Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

  6. DK says:

    “The fact is, there has never been a single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans to genuine equality for Black people.”
    Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

  7. Andy says:

    Quoting MLK is like quoting from the Bible – it’s very easy to cherry-pick.

    I continue to look at MLK as one of the greatest strategists of the 20th century, and one that America has not seen since. Regardless of what one thinks about his various views (which were not static, BTW), one can’t deny that he saw the vulnerability in the existing order, understood how to pressure that vulnerability, and effectively marshaled the relevant resources actually to make it happen. That is an exceedingly rare quality for a single person.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    King was politically astute. He understood the use of flattery and acknowledged progress where it occurred. He understood aspiration. He wrapped his socialism and radicalism in patriotism and soaring rhetoric. It’s always been the best way to get to Americans: flatter, express genuine love of country, point to ways it can be even better. Obama copied that example.

    Others, less wise, less patient – indeed I come to mind – can’t be bothered with the spoonful of sugar but go directly to, ‘I’ve explained what you need to do, shut up and do it.’ One of many reasons I won’t be winning the Nobel Peace Prize or the presidency.

  9. Matt Bernius says:

    Completely agree on those points (we had a similar conversation last year).

    Regardless of what one thinks about his various views (which were not static, BTW).

    Yes, they were definitely not static, though I think there were some pretty clear trajectories that emerge across the arc of his life as to the evolution of those ideas. When I was prepping to write this, I had initially considered spending some additional time unpacking that painting. And that led to me doing a bit of research into a topic I knew of, but had not previously researched, MLK’s relationship with firearms and self-defense.

    In 1956, after Dr. King’s house was firebombed, he was denied a pistol permit. And, by contemporary accounts, he also had (illegally) pistols in his possession. This was seen as an issue by his mentors in the non-violence movement. We don’t know when Dr. King officially gave up those arms, but it appears clear he did by 1960. Still, he was clearly still thinking about the ethics of self defense:

    Later, in the Black Power years, King made a distinction between people using guns to defend themselves in the home and the question of “whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized protest.” But, for himself, King claimed nonviolence as a “way of life,” and he maintained his resolve under conditions that would make others falter.

    More details on this topic and Dr. King’s relationship with the non-violence movement can be found in this great essay published by the Guardian.

  10. Matt Bernius says:

    You’re welcome and thanks for those quotes.

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Well put. And for the record, I kept nominating you for the “lovable angry grunkle who knows what’s what and will definitely tell you about it” prize, but the Nobel committee finally blocked me.

  11. Andy says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    It’s only natural to want to protect yourself and your family when people are actually out to kill you. The competing principles of self-defense vs non-violence allow for a wide range of legitimate views, IMO, and I certainly do not blame MLK for his decision to carry or not carry a firearm, whatever his choice.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Matt Bernius:
    I don’t have enough cases to advance a broader conclusion, but I note that in some notable cases – King, Obama, Mandela – the Black victims of racial hatred are subtler and more nuanced than Whites who support the cause of equality. It’s an amusing example of White privilege: we think our righteous demands not only should be met but probably will be. Black people know better, they’ve been fighting this war for centuries while their White allies tend to come and go. “Black Lives Matter,” vs. “Defund and ACAB.”

    It’s a bit like the eager recruit who arrives at a front line unit to replace a guy who died. “Let me at them bad guys, I’ll lick ’em!” That guy’s dead ten minutes later while the veterans keep their heads down and plan their attacks with caution and care.

  13. drj says:

    If Robert E. Lee can be turned into a chivalrous and reluctant champion of the Lost Cause, Martin Luther King can sure as hell be made into a social conservative who refused to see color.

    Why, you could even have these noble figures share a holiday!

    It’s easy if you try.

  14. Matt Bernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It’s a bit like the eager recruit who arrives at a front line unit to replace a guy who died. “Let me at them bad guys, I’ll lick ’em!” That guy’s dead ten minutes later while the veterans keep their heads down and plan their attacks with caution and care.

    That has been the number one lesson I’ve learned as I’ve been working to learn about organizing: burnout is really easy, especially when working on seemingly intractable problems. There are moments when a lot of change can happen quickly, but those are often few and far between.

    When they come, you have to have already done a lot of the work to lay the foundations to take advantage of those moments. And there’s also no guarantee that there won’t be steps backward after a lot of forward progress.

    The organizers and changemakers I have come to respect the most think of things generationally. As I alluded to in the article, it’s taken us generations to get to this point, and it will take generations to truly move beyond it. Accepting the reality of that can be hard. And that also doesn’t mean that you don’t keep pushing forward. But you need to have the strength and stamina to do that (which means you can’t burn it all out on your first fight).

  15. drj says:


    Which, of course, is why the GOP hates the humanities. “Woke” history is a direct attack on their attempts to use a false pictue of the past to achieve their political goals in the present. SCOTUS is very efficient at this.

    As the man said:

    Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Matt Bernius:
    My eldest (25) daughter is quite the passionate progressive and occasional ANTIFA. After George Floyd I warned her that this would not be an issue won at the national level, but would be political trench warfare in a hundred jurisdictions, over the course of way too many years.

    Ignored, of course. Did I mention, she’s 25? Not to mention being raised by a man with the patience of a toddler.

  17. dazedandconfused says:

    IMO King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is where he explained himself best.

    The great quote for which he is remembered is wonderfully aspirational but in remembering him it’s important to remember he had competing voices within the community. King believed in non-violence as a guiding tenet. SNCC held non-violence as a situational tactic. Others, like NOI and the Panthers were separatists who viewed non-violence as a mistake.

    We may have been damned lucky he was around.

  18. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    In the last couple of days there have been a couple of articles that hammer home that point. One talked about all the police reform talk after George Floyd’s murder, that hasn’t happened. The other in this AM’s NYT on Biden’s MLK day speech. Basically the goals he had on election reform etc and talked about in 2022 didn’t happen.

  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    There are moments when a lot of change can happen quickly, but those are often few and far between.

    People crave catharsis. No one makes movies about people who devote 20 years to a cause and manage to move the ball forward six inches. Good and Evil – evil can be sudden and dramatic and affect rapid change. Good is less visible, it’s a billion small things by a billion people every day. Go to work, be a decent human being, raise your kids, be kind. That’s the paradox of good and evil: evil is easy to see, good is almost invisible, and yet when you step back you notice that there are 8 billion humans alive right now, and once upon a time there were just a few dozen of us walking around the savannah hoping to find a carcass the hyenas hadn’t gotten to.

    If good is the affirmation of life and liberty, and evil its opposite, it looks like over the long term good is actually the greater force.

  20. Gustopher says:

    A lot of the cherry picking right wingers get upset when we judge them by the content of their character. There’s no winning with them.

  21. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    I’ll just assume you know about Alabama…