Legacy of Martin Luther King

King is one of the most widely revered figures in American history. For example, a 2005 televised call-in poll identified King as the third greatest American, following Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln. Even posthumous accusations of marital infidelity, and academic plagiarism have not seriously damaged his public reputation but merely reinforced the image of a very human hero and leader. It is true that King's movement faltered in the latter stages, after the great legislative victories were won by 1965 (The Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act). But even the sharp attacks by more militant blacks, and even such prominent critics as Muslim leader Malcolm X, have not diminished his stature. However, criticism did not consist of mere blind attacks. Stokely Carmichael was a separatist and disagreed with King's plea for integration because he considered it an insult to a uniquely African American culture and Omali Yeshitela urged Africans to remember the history of violent European colonization and how power was not secured by Europeans through integration, but by violence and force. To then attempt to integrate with the colonizers' culture further insulted the original African cultures. Even the notion of decolonization was problematic for Frantz Fanon, an influential figure for black liberation movements. In Decolonizing, National Culture, and the Negro Intellectual (1961) he had this to say about the violent foundation on which colonizers claimed their names against the exploited and obstacles in making peace under such circumstances:

Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their origininality to the sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. Their first encounter was marked by violence and their existence togetheróthat is to say the exploitation of the native by the settlerówas carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons....The naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and blood-stained knives which emanate from it. For if the last shall be first, this will only come to pass after a murderous and decisive struggle between the two protagonists. That affirmed intention to place the last at the head of things, and to make them climb at a pace (too quickly, some say) the well-known steps which characterize an organized society, can only triumph if we use all means to turn the scale, including, of course, that of violence.

On the international scene, King's legacy included influences on the Black Consciousness Movement and Civil Rights Movements in South Africa. King's work was cited by and served as an inspiration for another black Nobel Peace prize winner who fought for racial justice in that country, Albert Lutuli.

King's wife, Coretta Scott King, followed her husband's footsteps and was active in matters of social justice and civil rights until her death in 2006. The same year Martin Luther King was assassinated, Mrs. King established the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, dedicated to preserving his legacy and the work of championing nonviolent conflict resolution and tolerance worldwide. His son, Dexter King, currently serves as the Center's president and CEO. Daughter Yolanda King is a motivational speaker, author and founder of Higher Ground Productions, an organization specializing in diversity training.

King's name and legacy have often been invoked since his death as people have begun to debate where he would have stood on various modern political issues were he alive today. For example, there is some debate even within the King family as to where he would have stood on gay rights issues. Although King's widow Coretta has said publicly that she believes her husband would have supported gay rights, his daughter Bernice believes he would have been opposed to them. The King Center lists homophobia as an evil that must be opposed.

In 1980, King's boyhood home in Atlanta and several other nearby buildings were declared as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. At the White House Rose Garden on November 2, 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor King. It was observed for the first time on January 20, 1986 and is called Martin Luther King Day. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, around the time of King's birthday. In January 17, 2000, for the first time, Martin Luther King Day was officially observed in all 50 U.S. states. This is one of three federal holidays dedicated to an individual American and the only one dedicated to an African American.

Many U.S. cities have officially renamed one of their streets to honor King. King County, Washington rededicated its name in honor of King in 1986. The city government center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is the only city hall in the United States to be named in honor of King.

In 1998, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity was authorized by the United States Congress to establish a foundation to manage fund raising and design of a Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. King was a prominent member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans. King will be the first African American honored with his own memorial in the National Mall area and the second non-President to be commemorated in such a way. The King Memorial will be administered by the National Park Service.

King is one of the ten 20th-century martyrs from across the world who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, London.


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