Antwain Jordan first learned about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in elementary school.
He recalls it as the stereotypical version: The great civil rights leader, loved and admired by all, has a dream, and is assassinated for it.
It wasn't until Jordan studied black history in college that he learned the actual King was much more complex.
In his time, the Baptist preacher was reviled as much as he was loved. He used the language of the Bible to attack not only racism, but the excesses of capitalism and militarism. He didn’t believe the integration he sought would be a panacea for black communities. He promoted black self-empowerment.
“I am not saying that we can’t work with people of other races,” said Jordan, now 25 and co-executive director of the Baltimore Algebra Project. “But we have to start with ourselves.”
Jordan is one of a generation of activists that came of age long after King’s assassination 50 years ago. They didn’t know King, the man, controversial leader of the long struggle for a dream that remains unrealized half a century after he was stopped by an assassin’s bullet. They were raised on King, the myth, sanitized for general consumption — some would say rendered nonthreatening to white America — and passed on through school programs and feel good television specials.
As they march against police brutality, school inequality and an unjust justice system, they are leaning on many of King’s principles. Just not always the most popular ones, familiar from his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“One of the things I see young people gravitating towards is being able to control their own narrative and write their own story,” said Kanisha Bond, a professor of government and policy at the University of Maryland. “I think folks are resistant to some of the caricatures of MLK.”
Karsonya Wise Whitehead, a professor of communication and African and African-American Studies at Loyola University Maryland, sees some of King’s protest style in today’s activists. They’re fighting for economic empowerment as King did, she says, and organizing locally before bringing their causes to a national stage.
And just as King held pray-ins, Black Lives Matter holds “die-ins,” protesting police brutality by lying on the ground in silence as if shot.
“It’s taking over a space in silence as a visual representation of what you are fighting for,” Whitehead said.
Dayvon Love has immersed himself in some of King’s later writings.
“One of the things he was very keen on that I wish more people knew about is he really was an advocate for the radical redistribution of power and wealth,” said Love, the 30-year-old director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. “That was a big part of what he was advocating for at the end of his life.”
“If people were taught this aspect of King’s legacy I am describing it would have encouraged social unrest and activism.”
Love cites King’s article “Black Power Defined,” published in The New York Times Magazine in June 1967. King urges African Americans to use their buying and voting power to gain economic and political influence. He says many black politicians are insufficiently independent of white authority.
“This relationship in turn hampers the Negro leader in bargaining with genuine strength and independent firmness with white party leaders,” King wrote. “The whites are all too well aware of his impotence and his remoteness from his constituents, and they deal with him as a powerless subordinate. He is accorded a measure of dignity and personal respect but not political power.”
Love says the civil rights movement focused too much on helping blacks gain entry into the white mainstream instead of building black businesses, organizations and communities. The result, he said, is that once-vibrant black communities such as Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore have deteriorated.
Mecca Verdell, a 24-year-old poet and self-described “artivist,” said she is influenced by the poetry of King’s speeches, including “I Have a Dream,” delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“I studied this speech intimately because it is so poetic and so musical,” said Verdell, who in her own work explores mental illness and community organizing in the black community. “He wrote very strategically, giving allusions to Lincoln, Shakespeare and the Bible.”
Verdell is a teacher and youth board member at Dew More Baltimore, a group that teaches young people in marginalized communities how to use the arts against injustice.
“It is like he guided people to think differently about how they wanted to attack a problem and will themselves to have the spirit to take care of that problem,” Verdell said. “That is what art does. Art has to be one of the most important tools for activism.”
Lamontre Randall is co-founder of BeMore Group, which consults nonprofits, mentors black youth and promotes economic equality. He says it’s important for young activists to understand the accomplishments of generations to guide their own activism.
“We are lucky to have a legacy like MLK,” he said.“We are not talking about MLK and other black leaders enough in our community.
“In order to be great, you have to know people in the past who are great. You can build off of their legacy and learn from their mistakes.”
Love says young people need to learn more about civil rights history — and from many perspectives.
“I think there are lots of young people who don’t have that context that are engaged in forms of activism that are ill-informed and exude a kind of individualism and ‘me’ mentality.”
Brandon Cahee learned about King in church. One year, he had to recite his “I Have A Dream” speech, which he said gave him more of an intimate understanding of it.
As president of the University of Baltimore Black Law Students Association, Cahee still leans on that speech in his own work. He says he chose law to help the most vulnerable fight against injustice.
“What he wrote in his speeches is still relevant to current times, which shows how persuasive his works are even now,” Cahee said. “I think now more than ever people are looking to individuals who have made a legacy in our history when fighting current injustices to see how they were able to withstand.”
Nykidra Robinson, founder of Black Girls Vote, says her favorite King speech is “What is Your Life’s Blueprint?” delivered to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia in October 1967. King encouraged the students to make plans to better themselves and their communities.
Robinson said young activists should develop blueprints for the causes they’re fighting for. Sometimes, she said, groups are quick to demonstrate, march and protest, but have no clear goal, end game or exit strategy.
“I am fine with marching,” she said. “But I am one that thinks we should’t march without an agenda for how we will follow up.”
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle are following their own blueprint. During this year’s General Assembly session, they’re fighting against legislation that would enhance prison sentences. They are also working to make sure that Baltimore’s youth fund money goes to organizations that are truly working with those in need.