IU Press e-book highlights breadth of Martin Luther King's message beyond race

Jan. 15, 2014


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- We remember the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. each January. But how much of King's message is lost in the annual focus on King as a civil rights activist and public speaker?

A lot, Jennifer J. Yanco argues in a new e-book published by Indiana University Press. The author, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and African studies from Indiana University, writes that King consistently and eloquently campaigned against the "giant triplets" of militarism, materialism and racism.

"He was an incredibly important social thinker and a great leader," she said. "And we've kept a shell of who he was to hold up to ourselves."

Yanco said her objective in writing "Misremembering Dr. King: Revisiting the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr." was to highlight aspects of King's work that have all but disappeared from popular memory. To focus only on his advocacy for civil rights, she said, is to disregard key aspects of his life and work.

King was a persistent and principled critic of militarism, not only in the context of his opposition to the Vietnam War but in his belief that violence is never the best way to resolve conflict and his concern that military spending diverted resources from pressing domestic needs.

"He was very critical of militarism, particularly of the U.S. government's increasing investment in military solutions to global problems," Yanco said. "He was an outspoken critic of war, but we don't hear much about that."

He was also a strong advocate for social and economic justice who argued that growing materialism and an ethos of greed were damaging America's moral and spiritual health. His advocacy on behalf of poor people of all races helped prod President Lyndon Johnson to declare a War on Poverty -- the 50th anniversary of which is being marked this month, along with what would have been King's 85th birthday.

As an advocate for racial justice, Yanco says, King didn't just dream about an idealized, colorblind society but spoke out against institutions that systematically disadvantaged people of color. He called for white people as well as people of color to challenge the racial order.

Yanco said she wrote the book partly to remind people who have memories of King of the breadth and richness of his message. But even more, she wrote it for those who came of age after King's death.

"The more recent generations really have nothing to go back to," she said. "They are, for the most part, left with a really watered-down image of who he was."

A Boston native who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Yanco served four years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Central and West Africa. In 1999, she developed and taught the grass-roots adult education course “White People Challenging Racism: Moving From Talk to Action.” She holds an M.S. from the Harvard School of Public Health and a Ph.D. from IU Bloomington. She is U.S. director of the West African Research Association and a visiting researcher at the African Studies Center at Boston University.

An IU Press podcast interview with Yanco is available online. Official publication of "Misremembering Dr. King" coincides with the Jan. 20 Martin Luther King. Jr. Day.