Dartmouth professor lectures on MLK’s continuing legacy

Annie Giffels

On the 50th anniversary of the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Grand Valley State University brought in Derrick White, a lecturer and scholar from Dartmouth College, to discuss the future of King’s legacy. This event, titled “MLK #WhereDoWeGoFromHere?” was hosted by GVSU’s Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Held in the Kirkhof Center on Wednesday, April 4, the event was open to the GVSU community. Throughout his presentation, White spoke about two different versions of King that still persist today: the “commemorative King” and the “analytical King.” To White, the “commemorative King” is the version that Americans, no matter their political preferences, love to use to further their policies and beliefs. 

“There are three things that we focus on,” White said. “He was a Christian social gospel, he believed in nonviolent direct action and integration.”

White explained that these aspects of King’s legacy are not wrong, but rather incomplete. According to White, King’s popularity is supported by white people of all political sides, and it is because they are only focused on the “commemorative King.” He went on to cite multiple examples of U.S. politicians who have used this version of King’s legacy to their advantage, when in reality, had it been 50 years earlier, White believes, they would have opposed King wholeheartedly. 

To White, King’s iconic “Dream” speech is another aspect of his legacy that has been deradicalized and made into political propaganda. 

“This was a very radical speech that we have transformed completely,” White said.

After explaining the problems of this “commemorative King,” White went on to describe a version of King that many people fail to acknowledge: the “analytical King.” This King is the version that, after his initial failures, found himself depressed and questioning where the movement was supposed to go next. White also said this version of King “was not popular with whites.”

White described how King was forced to recalculate the entire civil rights movement. Despite minor changes in laws, he knew the fight for racial equality was nowhere close to being complete. It was because of these challenges, according to White, that King created an analytical program.

“King then presented a forward action plan aimed at structural changes in society,” White explained.

Throughout the entirety of the lecture, White brought up one question multiple times: How did King’s legacy get so popular as to become nearly meaningless? To White, it is essential that King’s legacy is viewed how King himself would have wanted it, both radical and powerful. Though many Americans enjoy using King’s legacy to their advantage, White argued that this must end. 

Toward the end of the lecture, White touched on King’s funeral, expressing that he struggled with the fact that although many white Americans spoke of their support for King, they failed to show up to his funeral. He showed the audience a photo to further prove his point. 

Ultimately, White left the audience with an urge to exemplify his second example of King, saying, “Our nation needs the King of hard analysis and bold action.”