How pop culture still grapples with the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr

The civil rights icon has served as an inspiration for many fiction stories about racial discrimination and segregation

Puja Sarkar
Published : 15 Jan 2023, 02:22 PM
Updated : 15 Jan 2023, 02:22 PM

Jan 15 is the official birthday of American Baptist minister and activist Martin Luther King Jr, one of the most prominent leaders in the US civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King, Jr’s efforts during the civil rights movement in the United States throughout the 1960s cemented his place in history. His iconic "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963 stated his hope for a country free of bigotry and segregation. King organised and led a number of marches and boycotts while advocating peaceful means of protest. He promoted nonviolent solutions to some of the biggest problems facing society. He played a significant role in the March on Washington, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Memphis sanitation workers' strike.

While the significance of his life is often detailed in history books, his messages have also been referenced by contemporary pop culture. These portrayals embrace the monumental legacy King left behind and remind us to fight for racial equality.

BLACK PANTHER

The MCU movie with the most to say about black life and culture draws on ideas from King and his contemporaries.

The main conflict in the first Black Panther movie is between two individuals who are fighting for black emancipation in two different ways - one through traditionalism and the other through radicalism.

Erik Killmonger, the antagonist, was left an orphan in Oakland, California (a homage to the location of the Black Panther Party's founding in 1966) when his father was murdered by his uncle. Following this devastation, Erik's life is driven by a desire for vengeance as well as the pursuit of a fairytale that he feels he is the legitimate inheritor of. 

Their conflict reflects a dichotomy that is often discussed while looking at black history through the lens of important leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The fictional story arc of Killmonger has similarities with the life of Malcolm X and his ideals also resonates with parts of the civil rights leaders’ philosophy.

Malcolm X wound up in the foster care system after white supremacists killed his father, and he later turned into a hustler on the streets. But he educated himself and grew more radical as he studied colonialism, black history, and the Nation of Islam when he was later imprisoned for theft. After being released from prison, X devotedly promoted black separatism and armed self-defence.

T'Challa, the Black Panther, more closely resembles King. As king of Wakanda, T’Challa is responsible for the nation’s well-being and future and works to uphold the safety, prosperity, and harmony of his people. At one point, T'Challa is forced to decide between saving an injured man or going after someone who stole a valuable resource from his nation. Like King, he chooses to use his power to help those in need rather than pursue violent reprisal. King picked a similar path, trying to improve the situation of black people by securing voting rights, ending educational discrimination, and enacting other governmental reforms.

BLACK LIGHTNING

The CW superhero TV series Black Lightning sets up a similar dichotomy with another historic figure of black liberation.

Jefferson Pierce (Black Lightning) pushes for nonviolence and the harmonious coexistence of humans and ‘metahumans’ (people with superpowers).

Gravedigger, his adversary, is used to explore a philosophy channelled by Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican Pan-Africanist who wanted to create a sovereign utopia for black people and was willing to use more aggressive means to do so.

Like Garvey, Super soldier Gravedigger leaves a segregated America after World War II in favour of the fictional European country of Markovia to establish an autonomous metahuman state within Markovia. 

FORTNITE'S "MARCH THROUGH TIME"

The massively popular video game Fortnite held a year-long event called “March Through Time” between August 2021 and August 2002, using cutting-edge new formats to bring key moments from the US civil rights movement to life.

March Through Time was created to introduce a new audience to this historic event and study key moments from the movement. It brought Dr Martin Luther King Jr's famous "I Have a Dream" address to virtual reality for the first time.

Players of March Through Time were taken to DC 63, a redesigned version of Washington, DC, where they could engage in a completely immersive experience and discover the civil rights principles of King first-hand.

Players also visited the Lincoln Memorial and the US National Mall throughout the event, which was the location where King delivered his famous address for civil rights. The March Through Time expansion added areas of interest and objectives that were inspired by museums, where players had to work together to complete a variety of mini-games. These games were cooperative in nature, showcasing a key idea from King’s speech - we advance when we work together.

MAD MEN

The TV series Mad Men follows a group of characters centred on an advertising agency throughout the turbulent 1960s. The show depicts the impact of many major events of the decade on the characters’ lives. Among them is the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, which takes place in “The Flood”. 

But the weight of King’s death is one step removed from the main cast of the show, who are mostly white. In fact, the most direct impact of the assassination is that an awards banquet many of the characters are attending is disrupted.

In contrast to the episode on John F Kennedy’s death, the characters are more circumspect, distant, or confused. Some of them are sad about King’s death, thinking of his family. Others are concerned about how it will affect the company’s bottom line. A few are worried that it will trigger racial violence.

Only two African American characters are touched on in the episode – Peggy’s secretary Phyllis who gets the day off and goes home, and Dawn, another secretary who wants to stay at work because she thinks she couldn’t handle being in black Harlem at this moment of tragedy.

In this way, the show portrays how King was viewed in his own time and the conflicted perspectives contemporary white people had of him.

THE BOONDOCKS

In the "Return of the King" episode of the animated sitcom The Boondocks, 10-year-old Huey Freeman tells the story of Martin Luther King surviving the 1968 shooting and falling into a coma.

Awakening in October 2000, King is initially met with a wave of popularity. However, as time passes, he finds himself increasingly frustrated with how African-American culture is being treated and finds himself at odds with Fox News, which sees him as an unpatriotic pacifist after he says he would ‘turn the other cheek’ in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

As Huey and King negotiate 21st-century Black America, King's idealistic outlook and the pessimism of modern society clash. All of this builds up to the episode's most well-known scene, in which King tries to give a speech while being repeatedly interrupted by music in front of a group of Black Americans. The issue leads to an outburst from King who criticises the gathering for not following the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement.

King’s impassioned speech catches on and soon becomes a flashpoint for social change. But Huey’s final comment on the story – “It’s fun to dream,” suggests that the entire episode was just playing out in his imagination.

King's life, work, and legacy remain touchstones for American society and culture. It is no wonder then that the country's pop culture has continued to grapple with the immensity of his contributions, his philosophy, and his impact.

This article is a part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective. 

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher