The Atlantic Daily: What to Read This Martin Luther King Jr. Day

King casts his ballot in Atlanta in 1964, while his wife, Coretta, waits.

Today, we reflect on the legacy of the civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. amid a pandemic that has disproportionately devastated Black communities—and as the country faces the ongoing threat of white-supremacist violence.

“This year’s celebration feels like it carries some extra weight, especially in the face of insurrection and potential future violence,” our senior editor Vann R. Newkirk II, who edited the KING special issue of our magazine, told me. “So on this occasion, I’m thinking about King’s radical resistance against disenfranchisement and white-supremacist violence, and about how those forces created structures that still carry on today.”

I asked Vann, who’s also written about the whitewashing of King’s assassination, to select a few pieces for you to read in this moment.

1. King’s 1965 “Let My People Vote” speech

There must be a change. There will be a change. For to deny a person the right to exercise his political freedom at the polls is no less a dastardly act as to deny a Christian the right to petition God in prayer.

2. Benjamin E. Mays’s eulogy for King after his assassination

A century after Emancipation, and after the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, it should not have been necessary for Martin Luther King Jr. to stage marches in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, and go to jail thirty times trying to achieve for his people those rights which people of lighter hue get by virtue of their being born white. We, too, are guilty of murder. It is time for the American people to repent and make democracy equally applicable to all Americans. What can we do? We, and not the assassin, represent America at its best. We have the power—not the prejudiced, not the assassin—to make things right.

3. The writer Jesmyn Ward on choosing to raise her children in Mississippi

Perhaps the most tragic manifestation of racist sentiment in Mississippi is silent. Built into the very bones of this place. My state starves its people and, in doing so, actively resists King’s legacy. Our Republican lawmakers have made an effort to undercut programs that serve the poor, maybe because so many people of color in Mississippi live in poverty and depend on social programs for help.

For more on King’s life and legacy, revisit our KING issue. And read our staff writer Hannah Giorgis on when the FBI spied on MLK.

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