Peniel Joseph to discuss how Martin Luther King’s activism and death shaped American democracy

Amid social and political tensions and movements like Black Lives Matter, Peniel Joseph believes the principles of equality preached by Martin Luther King Jr. are increasingly pertinent.

“The triple threats to humanity— militarism, racism and materialism —that King cited near the end of his life have increased, rather than diminished, in our own time,” Joseph wrote in a 2016 article for Newsweek.

Peniel Joseph

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 14, in the Hall of Philosophy, Joseph, will discuss the role of King’s activism and death in his lecture, “The Passion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: How the King Assassination Continues to Shape American Democracy.” Joseph, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin, is speaking as part of the Week Eight interfaith theme, “Not to be Forgotten: A Remembrance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Joseph, the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and a professor in UT’s schools of public affairs and history, said there are parallels between King’s activism and modern pushback against racism.

“Fifty years ago, the same criticism being leveled against BLM activists was being deployed not only against Black Power radicals, but Dr. King,” he said in Newsweek. “The increasingly strident tone of King’s political rhetoric … turned the March On Washington keynote speaker and Nobel Peace Prize recipient into an increasingly unpopular figure.”

Often described as a scholar of “Black Power Studies,” Joseph has studied the Black Power movement and has published several books on the topic, including Waiting ‘til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. The Black Power movement was marked by racial pride and a push, by some, toward radical protesting.

Though King is not directly associated with the Black Power movement, Joseph said King’s style of resistance played an instrumental role in empowering movements like BLM.

“King located American democracy’s enduring power in ‘the right to protest for right,’ an axiom that today’s Black Lives Matter activists have enthusiastically embraced,” he said in Newsweek.

Having traced the roots of Black Power and activism in his books, Joseph now regularly applies his historical insight as a commentator on NPR.

He has discussed a range of social and political issues in comparison to previous battles over injustice.

“Then, King juxtaposed the War on Poverty and Vietnam War as twin failures of the nation’s moral and political imagination,” he said in Newsweek. “Now, Black Lives Matters leaders have identified the entire criminal justice system as a complex and interlocking gateway of social and political oppression, one whose tentacles reach public schools, housing projects, voting rights, employment opportunities, and overall life chances.”

By presenting these parallels, Joseph said, it becomes clear that the fight for racial equality, which King gave voice to, is not over. Instead, modern leaders of BLM and other movements should find inspiration in King and channel his courage into their activism.

“King’s most profound legacy was not in winning the battle against structural racism, inequality, and white supremacy — because he did not,” Joseph said in Newsweek. “ … The full measure of King’s legacy requires nothing less than to honestly wrestle with hard truths that he publicly confronted a half century ago and that remain perhaps even more fiercely urgent in our own time than his.”

Tags : Not to be Forgotten: A Remembrance on Dr. Martin Luther King JrPeniel JosephThe Passion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: How the King Assassination Continues to Shape American DemocracyWeek Eight

The author Julie Ciotola

Julie Ciotola is reporting on the Interfaith Lecture Series and Sacred Song Services. She is an Akron, Ohio, native and studies journalism and history at Ohio University. Next year, she will serve as editor-in-chief for Backdrop Magazine, a student-run campus publication. This is her first time at Chautauqua. Contact her at or on Twitter.