José Vilson

Growing up, I never had a good sense of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. In elementary school, I thought of him as a secular saint, a monument in history who dreamed of people of all colors holding hands around a globe.

Indeed, the "I have a dream" soundbite is the most common version of Dr. King taught in school and pushed through media coverage leading up to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday. Although my after school program at the Boys Club on Manhattan's Lower East Side had a viewing of the documentary Eyes on the Prize, which made Dr. King a more real person, he still felt distant, as if the events in his life were more scripted than lived. Because such a caricature puts perfection in front of process, the Dr. King "sainthood" message puts the work for social justice at a disadvantage.

Only in college did Dr. King's life become real to me. His part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his leadership for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, his sacrifices and arrests when forcing himself into segregated places, and his fiery oratory when speaking out against poverty, war, and racial justice are large parts of his astounding and well-celebrated legacy. I also learned about the rarely-taught, less luminous aspects of his history.

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