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The Transformative Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 2016

By Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.
NNPA News Wire Columnist

There is no debate concerning the irrefutable fact that The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the greatest leaders recognized, admired and affirmed by millions of people across America and throughout the world. King’s activism and leadership changed America and the world, as did Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in their respective global impacts.

As we prepare to celebrate the 87th birthday of Dr. King as part the official federal holiday celebrations, I believe it is very important to focus on how Dr King’s legacy today is still relevant and transformative for all people who cry out for freedom, justice, equality and empowerment.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a devoted man of faith and a committed freedom fighter for the establishment and building of “The Beloved Community.” Dr. King was clear about the ultimate goal of the Civil Rights Movement. His vision went beyond changing laws and winning victories against the forces of injustice and repression.

Social change for Dr. King was not an abstraction or just a dream or an unreachable goal, but it was a realistic, achievable and tangible outcome of the struggle for freedom and equality: “The Beloved Community”
In his own words, King emphasized, “The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”

Today, in the bold tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., we salute the Black Lives Matter movement. It is being led by young, gifted, talented and courageous activists, who are using nonviolent civil disobedience anew to challenge racial injustice and the wanton police violence and murders that have become too frequent against Black Americans and others.
But today we must also assert in King’s transformative tradition that “All Black Lives Matter!” In other words, yes, we have to stand up effectively against police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct. Yes, we urgently have to reform the criminal justice system in its totality. Yet, we must also stand up effectively with our activism to stop the self-destructive violence and murders that too many of us perpetrate on each other in our own families and communities.

In principle and in faith, the truth is we have to be against all forms of violence and all forms of the destruction of humanity. There is no justification to take the life of another human being. It would be a gross contradiction to everything Dr. King worked and sacrificed for if we remained silent about the surge in self-destructive gun violence that prevails today in too many of our communities.

Reconciliation for Dr. King was not reconciling or compromising to leave injustice or racial bigotry in place. However reconciliation was the active and involved process that resulted in specific social transformation that inured benefits to all people. The success of the Civil Rights Movement under Dr. King’s leadership not only benefited Black America, but also the success of this movement for change provided benefits to all people.

King never suspended his faith in the God of justice and liberation. He refused to bend his principles and beliefs on the effectiveness of nonviolent social change activism and multiracial movement building. The organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) by Dr. King and other Black church leaders was a prophetic step forward that kept the Black church in America at the forefront of the battle for civil rights and human rights. King was an intellectual genius who stood on the universal theological principles of the oneness of God and the oneness of all humanity.

In my younger years, I personally worked with Dr. King, Golden Frinks and Milton Fitch in the North Carolina SCLC. I witnessed firsthand how Dr. King transformed and inspired the consciousness of people to believe and exert a grassroots power to promote social change. We could use that kind of grassroots power today to get a massive voter turnout.


Dr. King was not a “weak” leader who sought to appease or to entertain the powerful in the high places and principalities of oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in complete solidarity with the poor and marginalized, but yet determined to end poverty and injustice wherever those evils were manifested.
Thus, we should also revisit Dr. King’s economic justice demands. It is my opinion that if Dr. King were alive today he would be encouraging “principled youth entrepreneurial development.” Participating in the U.S. economy as business owners that help to financially sustain our communities should be a priority.

In his last public speech on April 3, 1968 on the night before his tragic assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, without fear Dr. King asserted, “The nation is sick; trouble is in the land, confusion all around…But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century. Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”

In 2016, “We want to be free!” We want an end to racial injustice and all manifestations of inequity and inequality. But we realize from the living legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. that we all should remain vigilant and active. Let’s keep Dr. King’s transformative legacy alive and vibrant with renewed energy and support.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is the President and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and can be reached for national advertisement sales and partnership proposals at:; and for lectures and other professional consultations at:

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