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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Martin Luther King Jr.: The Dreamer And The Radical

Abernathy Family via National Park Service
Civil rights movement cofounder Ralph David Abernathy and his wife Juanita Abernathy follow with Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King, as the Abernathy children march on the front line, leading the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.

On Monday, people around the United States are honoring the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Many remember King at the head of the civil rights movement — a man who fought for the rights of all people and preached non-violence.

But according to Cedric Burrows, an assistant professor of English at Marquette University, we don’t always get the full picture of who King was.

Credit Teran Powell
Cedric Burrows is an assistant professor of English at Marquette University.

Burrows says he puts King's life into two categories: the dreamer and the radical. He says the former highlights the parts of King's life that are most familiar to people: the "I Have a Dream" speech, the Montgomery bus boycotts, King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, and his assassination.

But the "radical King" is an idea Burrows says is more recent, making it seem as though King had never really been radical throughout his career.

"I would say King's whole career was radical. It was radical in the fact that he introduced non-violence as a tactic, as a strategy, as a way of life for people — that was a very radical thing," Burrows explains.

Burrows also notes that he's seen inconsistencies, as far as some language being taken out in speeches and letters that King had written. He says this is most obvious when comparing the original documents to what's in textbooks. Burrows says most of it is toned down.

"We don't really get the anger that's seeping underneath the surface," Burrows says

He says that brings up another interesting point.

"I think it goes to a larger narrative that as African Americans we can't get angry at racism. That we always have to silently suffer sometimes. And it's like we get applauded if we don't have those feelings when actually those are natural feelings," Burrows says.

Despite what parts of King are left out of the stories we're told about him, Burrows says he wants people to remember "the human rights aspect of King's message. That his message is universal. People should still continue to fight, and they should think about what they can do in their community."

Burrows says you don't have to be King to make a difference. If you see injustice, say something.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company Foundation.


Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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