The lessons from Martin Luther King are cross-generational, intersectional and inclusive

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis plans to open the renovated Legacy Building to highlight key tenets of achieving economic justice.

Russ Wigginton
Guest Columnist
  • Dr. Russ Wigginton is the president of the National Civil Rights Museum.

As we reflect on the life and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the federal holiday celebrating his birthday, it’s important to examine his evolution as a leader particularly in the last five years of his life.

His leadership and critical thinking in that season is not explored enough but are essential to his enduring legacy that continues to be amplified.

Part of the reason Dr. King is often quoted is because he provided a moral compass, a pathway to greatness to which we all can aspire.

His words are convincing, convalescing, and convicting, depending on where one’s compass registers, and have the power to bring hope, healing, and harmony. They also resonate in such a way that the listener feels compelled to act or shift perspectives.

King implored people to embrace the ‘urgency of now’

Considering the heavy social ills King addressed in his last years, there’s little wonder his works remain relevant.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said a "massive action program" will cost the nation to give blacks the same economic opportunity as the white man in his speech during Vanderbilt University's Impact symposium at Memorial Gym on April 7, 1967.

It has been 60 years since he shared his dream to over 250,000 people in our nation’s capital, and his words still resonate; the work resoundingly unfinished.

Beyond King’s dream, he implored us to embrace the “fierce urgency of now” for equal rights, desegregation and justice.

Today we are reminded that we are in urgent need of action, that freedom must be earned in every generation, and that we must move beyond complacency.

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MLK urge leaders to shift from war to peace

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, left, is shown conferring March 29, 1967, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ali was here for his court suit to prevent his Army induction April 28 in Houston. The court refused, however, to block his call-up

In King’s last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?,” he pointed out how nonviolent civil disobedience is the major pathway to peace.

King urged policymakers to divert this country’s rich resources from the military machine to its people, particularly those in poverty.

Russ Wigginton, president of the National Civil Rights Museum, points to the audience while speaking during the Freedom Award ceremony at The Orpheum in Downtown Memphis, on Thursday, October 19, 2023.

War and violence had already exacerbated issues and burdened a new generation here and abroad of war-torn infrastructures, health, hatred, and division. It propped up a system of predatory capitalism at the expense of stronger systems, education, employment, housing, and civil rights – pillars in which true equality should have been addressed so that democracy could thrive.

Quest for economic justice made King unpopular among peers

We acknowledge America has come a long way since King launched the Poor People’s Campaign and introduced the Economic Bill of Rights in 1968.

He was an unpopular figure for introducing these ideas, even among his peers who thought he should stick to quieter, nonviolent protest. King understood that the times required a deeper, comprehensive approach to achieve equality for Black and underserved communities. If this nation was committed to real, sustainable change, it had to be about equity. And that is still the case.

Today’s social landscape may be different, and views on success may vary, but for sure, the work needed is compounded after decades of divestment and discriminatory practices.

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Legacy Building will offer blueprint for achieving economic mobility and equity

The National Civil Rights Museum stands as a beacon to shine light on how systemic racism and unchecked social priorities have impacted this nation for generations to come.

We also ascribe to the hope and faith King expressed that the richest nation in the world with its technological and social advances has the capacity to make the change needed toward a new democracy.

Through the renovated Legacy Building, slated to open in 2025, the National Civil Rights Museum will reintroduce the blueprint toward economic mobility and equitable access to civil and human rights.

Exploring the key themes in King’s book, this new exhibition will highlight education, labor/jobs, poverty, gender equity, criminal justice/mass incarceration, and housing.

It will outline today’s struggles for these rights with room to share innovative strategies forward. Embedded in our mission is inspiring all to be catalysts for positive social change that empowers and fuels the next generation.

Russ Wigginton

The lessons from King are cross-generational, intersectional, and inclusive. Hands down, the National Civil Rights Museum chooses community over chaos, and we are committed to uplifting King’s legacy in today’s civil and human rights movement.

To learn more about the National Civil Rights Museum, visit

Dr. Russ Wigginton is the president of the National Civil Rights Museum.