Decades Since His Death, MLK's Shadow Still Shapes Today's Activism It's been nearly half a century since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. As the U.S. prepares to celebrate his work, it's worth asking: What does King's legacy mean for today's grass-roots activists?

Decades Since His Death, MLK's Shadow Still Shapes Today's Activism

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Tomorrow is the day the nation remembers Martin Luther King, Jr., so we thought this was a good time to reflect on how his legacy is playing out today. Many people see the Black Lives Matter movement of the modern incarnation of the drive for human dignity and legal standing that Dr. King embodied. But others, including some members of the earlier generation of activists, sometimes find fault with the group, seeing it as an aimless, formless group that still lacks direction and follow-through.

Meanwhile, younger activists sometimes see their seniors as too narrow in their focus and rigid in their methods. And others ask whether the mere fact that another protest movement has arisen is a sign that earlier efforts have fallen short.

We've called two prominent activists who're both seen as acting in the tradition of Dr. King's legacy of grassroots activism to reflect on these important questions. Reverend William Barber II is senior pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. He's the head of the North Carolina NAACP, but he's probably best known for leading Moral Monday protests across North Carolina, considered the largest racial justice rally in the South since Selma. He's with us from his church in Goldsboro. Welcome, Reverend Barber, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WILLIAM BARBER II: So glad to be here this morning.

MARTIN: And here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios is Patrisse Cullors. She is an artist and activist from Los Angeles, and she's considered one of the founders of the Black Live Matters movement. Welcome, Patrisse. Thanks so much for speaking with us again.


MARTIN: First, I wanted to ask each of you if you agree with my characterization. Do you see yourself as part of the next generation of civil rights activists or something else entirely? Patrisse, do you want to start?

CULLORS: I definitely see myself as the next generation of civil rights activists. I think part of our work in this generation has been about reclaiming MLK and the ways that this government, in a lot of ways, has totally whitewashed his legacy. As a young kid growing up, what we were given was the dream speech. We weren't given his grassroots organizing. We weren't given that King was a local organizer. We weren't given everything he did up until the Voting Rights Act. And when I joined this movement as a young person, I realized, oh, King is so much more. Look at these speeches. Look at what he was doing. And as the Black Lives Matter movement started, it was really clear to many of us that we had to reclaim that legacy.

MARTIN: Reverend Barber, your personal biography is similar to Dr. King's in the sense that, you know, you are an ordained minister. You do lead an institution. You are, you know, have a kind of a traditional family life, you know, or role in your community. So I would assume that perhaps that connection to the King legacy is more natural for you. Do you see it that way?

BARBER: Well, I don't know, but I see the legacy of Dr. King is even beyond the civil rights movement. I see the legacy connected to the Old Testament prophets who stood up for the marginalized and against injustice to the social gospel movement that stood up and asked the question - what would Jesus do in the face of terrible economic inequities and damage to workers? - right on through to the second Reconstruction, which I call the civil rights movement. You know, that intersectionality - fusion politics - bringing together blacks and whites and Latinos and Jews and Christians and Muslims, but doing it in a way that takes race and class seriously and does not separate them.

MARTIN: So, Patrisse, let me get to the intergenerational critique. There are those who argue that Black Lives Matter is good at getting people out, but not getting people in, by which I mean that so far, at least - that the movement has been good at getting people fired from jobs. They've been good at getting people indicted, even, or calling attention to people who've done wrong, but not very good at forming a strategy that would change the institutions that caused the harm that you see. And I want to ask how you've - what do you say to that?

CULLORS: I guess what I want to argue is that folks have seen the protesting and the marching, the arrests, but folks haven't actually sat down with movement leaders to say, what else are you doing? The negotiations with mayors, with chiefs of police, with county sheriffs - people are missing the negotiations because that's not what gets highlighted in the media. And I think what we ask of folks is to be patient. Instead of heavily critiquing us, join us and help us strategize around what's next and what's possible.

MARTIN: Reverend Barber, what do you say about the slate of issues on which you now focus, like the whole question of voting rights, like the whole question of, you know, workplace issues. I mean, people forget that Dr. King was in Memphis...

BARBER: Right.

MARTIN: ...Because of the sanitation workers' strike...

BARBER: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Over wages and working conditions. And some people look at that and say - is that evidence that the earlier movement actually did not succeed?

BARBER: No. It's evident that America is always catching the hiccups. And when it comes to public policy and regressing, yes, we are in a reality right now where we have less voting rights today than we had August 6, 1965, after the Shelby decision and the inaction of the Congress. But that's what movements do.

This is country constantly going through reconstruction. And there are times when we have to do two things at the same time. We have to protect what was won and expand. So we have to fight in the courts. We have to fight in the street. We have to fight in the legislative hall. And we have to fight at the ballot box. Democracy is hard. It is not easy.

MARTIN: Patrisse, how does that sit with you, as a young woman really just starting your life? How does that sit with you? In fact, is it OK to mention you're about to become a mother? Does that feel optimistic or pessimistic to hear that this work is still the same work in some ways?

CULLORS: It doesn't feel optimistic or pessimistic. It feels sobering. And, you know, as a child who grew up during the war on drugs and witnessed devastation of my community and black communities at large by the police state and the prison state, I am very grateful that I'm in this fight. And I've sat with, you know, civil rights leaders, and I've sat with former Panthers who say, I'm sorry. We failed you. And I say to them, no, you didn't. You've set the standard. And we are continuing to move that forward. We can't expect to undo 500 years. We just can't expect to undo it in three or four decades.

MARTIN: Reverend Barber, what about you?

BARBER: Well, it says more about the failure of America, but it also says something about the greatness of movements and the seeds that were sown by Ella Baker and Dr. King and Rosa Parks. We are their children. And so when I hear about Patrisse's behavior, that makes me want to fight. When I think about the fact I was born two days after the March on Washington - and to hear my mother say to me one day, listen, we fought too hard for you to stop. You better fight. You better stand up. And I - that's why our mantra is no matter what they say to us, no matter how many death threats we get, no matter what politicians do, we are going forward together.

MARTIN: Well, we have to leave it there for now. Hopefully, we'll talk again. That was the Reverend William Barber II. He's president of the North Carolina NAACP. He's also the leader of a group called, and he joined us from Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. Patrisse Cullors was also with us. She's a cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement. She's considered one of the originators of the Black Lives Matter hashtag. She joined us in our Washington, D.C., studios. She's director of the Truth and Reinvestment Campaign at the Ella Baker Center. Thank you both so much for speaking with us, and happy Martin Luther King Day to you both.

CULLORS: Thank you so much. This was great.

BARBER: God bless you. Love you all.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.