Reflecting on the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.


April 4th marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Although taken from this world far too soon, King left us with an important legacy that continues to inform the work we do here at Operation Black Vote. It is in his memory and honour that each member of the OBV staff has written a short personal reflection about what Martin Luther King Jr. means to them.

Simon Woolley:

I don’t remember the day Dr Martin Luther King was killed. My first recollection of King was those grainy black and white documentaries which showed King and his supporters being mowed down by charging police on horseback, and those officers with a rabid dog in one hand and wielding a baton at a helpless Black man with the other. It was as shocking as it was traumatic. I’d never seen so much hatred, not least by people I understood were supposed to be there to protect you.

As a young teenager I had three male heroes: Muhammad Ali, because he was the most stylish boxer that ever lived; Pele, because he epitomised the beautiful and he looked like me, or at least because, being only one of two Black boys at school, I was often referred to as Pele. And Martin Luther King because when he spoke he kind of sung, and when he sung he moved the spirit of anyone who cared to listen.

Fast forward 50 years and in many ways we at OBV are disciples of Dr King. And the greatest honour I could ever receive came from one of Dr King’s biggest disciples Rev Jesse Jackson, who said in 2012 at the American Embassy, ‘I have no doubt that had he been around at the time Dr King would have chosen Simon Woolley to be part of his inner working team’.

In many of us around the world the spirit of Dr Martin Luther King lives on.

Dominque Brodie:

On days like April 4th, many are motivated to recall the excellence and impact of one of America’s most renowned heroes: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, I am once again reminded of the ways that his legacy has been co-opted, sanitized, and repackaged for mass consumption.

As an activist and writer, I have personally learned a great deal from Dr. King, but I cannot consider Dr. King’s legacy without confronting the ways in which mainstream history has stripped him of his revolutionary message.

Everyone, black and white, knows and loves Dr. King, and everyone especially knows and loves his “I Have a Dream” speech (actually entitled Normalcy, Never Again). When I hear references to Dr. King’s contributions, and this speech in particular, I too often hear a story that reads "I have a dream that little black boys and little black girls can join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers," as opposed to one that reads "the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge." Both of these are direct quotes from that same speech, but the first is much more popular. That is because it condenses Dr. King’s message to one of racial integration, when in reality he continuously called for an end to poverty, racism, and militarism.

This depiction of Martin Luther King as a peaceful, popular, white-loving negro allows too many people to remember his message, and the larger movement he contributed to, as simply one of ‘peace’ or ‘unity.’ The things Dr. King fought for, especially towards the end of his life, were radical in ways that made him very unpopular (and ultimately led to his assassination). 50 years later, as we seek to honour his legacy, we should always remember who Dr. King really was, and how much we can learn from his speeches and his writing, but mostly his actions.

Cameron de Matteis:

I was eight years old the first time my teacher recited the entire “I Have a Dream” speech to our third grade class. It was a classroom filled with students of diverse ethnicities and a multitude of cultural backgrounds. It was a classroom of children who had not yet grown to understand the brutalities of the world King addressed; children who had never known a segregated classroom or playground, a room of children who played side by side with everyone who crossed their paths.

And yet still the words carried a powerful resonance that has followed me into adulthood. The dream King vividly described, of a world more tolerant and loving to all, continues to be a dream we fight for in the face of prevalent injustice and racism in our society. The monsters of bigotry and intolerance are no less ubiquitous in today’s world, though these have taken different forms than when King first delivered his speech. The children from that third grade class have grown to discover new battles, new challenges to overcome in honour of realizing King’s dream for the world.

To me he represents what it means to live a life of purpose transcendent beyond oneself. He lived his life in service to others, striving to make the world a better place. His dream represents a vision we continue to fight for in essence of his beloved memory: one world of love, unity, and equality.

His life epitomizes the change that is possible when defiance and perseverance prevail in the face of adversity and it is a legacy we must continue to celebrate. His dream was for all of us, and as such every single person has a stake in creating the world he imagined for us many years ago.

Ade Adebayo:

Superlatives seem to fall short of encompassing the true impact of Martin Luther King. A life lived in service not only to his people, but to all people for the betterment of society’s collective spirit. It pains me to write that it took death, however, for him to be truly venerated. His assassination much like the killings of Emmet Till, Jimmie Lee Jackson and Malcolm X became catalysts for change, for revolt, for progress.


My first memory of learning about MLK was as a young teen, in a religious education class when I heard him say to a reporter after one of occasion he had been shot “Man I’ve been shot so many times, I can’t even feel it anymore”. At the time all I could say was ‘What a badass’ as I tried to focus on the black and white video, however my awe along with those words, have stayed with me. Now I see him, a man hardened, not only by circumstance but by choice. A man who completely understood his purpose, who continued on through the pain, threats, hatred and disrespect, knowing it may never get better but with the vision of contributing to just the possibility.

Superlatives will never be enough. As Bernice King said, the only true tribute is to continue the work he began, for us, so we too can - if only in an infinitesimally small way - impact someone else’s life in the same way he did ours.