The civil rights leader Martin Luther KI
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Alex Witt   |  January 19, 2014

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an everyday man

Alex Witt talks to The’s Theodore Johnson about his article that describes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a regular guy.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> jr. day and it's when the nation stops to honor and remember the life and accomplishments of the late civil rights icon known for his nonviolent activism, in the efforts to try to end racial discrimination in this country. yet as we celebrate his legacy, theodore johnson says it is vitally important that we remember martin luther king jr . was just an everyday man. he joins me now from washington, d.c. with a welcome to you, we took a look at your piece. it's coming out tomorrow on part of it has a quote here. by humanizing the historic figure, we make his significant accomplishments more accessible and tangible to us all. so explain what you mean there and why you think it's important to see him as a regular guy.

>> first of all, thanks for having me, alex.

>> glad you're here.

>> i'll tell you, my first image of martin luther king was on the back of a church van in the southern baptist church i grew up in, and the only other person that had a van was jesus. so we get this heroic caricature for those who did not grow up with doctor. king while he was alive. so he seems sort of other worldly. the problem with that is when you see him as this figure who accomplished things that are unattainable otherwise, you start to question whether your efforts and talents can be brought to bear to address the problems of the nation. and so when we see him as a regular guy, then we start to see him in our brothers and uncles and family members and in ourselves and that gives us the inspiration and makes his legacy more accessible.

>> you make reference in your piece that he wrote for ebony a poem called "advice for living." you say it gives us a glimpse at his approachability and nursing counsel. it's the same advice that you yourself would give a loved one. so why is this important?

>> because like in that column, he talks about civil rights movements . so some of the answers we expect to hear. but when a young lady writes in and says that she's being pressured into doing things she doesn't want to by men she'd like to date, he gives advice that's like a grandfather. and so when i look back and think about the advice that i got from my grandfather or the legacy i carry from my grandfather, it makes me feel that i have more to give to the nation, to the country, more to offer than something maybe not on par with what dr. king did, but certainly something that can contribute to the betterment of the nation. when we start to see doctor. king -- dr. king in all of us, it's not a mistake on dr. king's holiday they call it a day on, not a day off. that's because the bit of him that resides in each of us, the drive to do something bigger and better is something that we should call on on that day. and that's how we truly honor the legacy.

>> do you think there's a limit, though, to humanizing dr. king? for example, as you know through the several fliers that have surfaced and sparked outrage, there's one advertising a dance party showing him as a rapper with tattoos and a large gold chain there. i mean, are these at all appropriate?

>> no, these are wholly inappropriate. if there is any explanation for these -- and i don't think there is anyone that is truly satisfactory, it is an attempt, again, to humanize him, to modernize him. it's done distastefully. it's disrespectful. but i think at the core of this, for those aside from the money making aspect of this and the inappropriateness, there is some drive in all of us, some kernel in each of us that wants to make him accessible today. it's a horrible attempt. it's much better to try to help the homeless or mentor children or do something to help the country that doesn't put dr. king in an inappropriate light.

>> looking forward to having your article published tomorrow. it's really good. thank you very much.