More Than an “Icon:” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Enduring Legacy


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service


Martin Luther King Jr., is the most important historical figure of the 20Th and 21RST Centuries, the indisputable enduring icon of modern times.

There are many brave individuals whose contributions have advanced the human condition, resulting in similar social contributions. The more I studied King’s substantial national and international legacies, however, the more I became convinced King is the more than the defining “icon” of our times.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (MLK) legacy, remains an implacable force and influence long after his passing fifty years ago. In my opinion, this is because King assumed many roles and functions whose social consequences will endure.

The fact of the matter is King was (is) more than a relentless courageous civil rights leader whose efforts promoted justice, equality, freedom, and hope, for all humanity; King challenged and altered abusive and illegal time-endowed values, beliefs, policies, and crimes.  King served many functions; he filled many roles.  King was:

  • A minister accustomed to offering inspiring and arousing sermons sensitivity to moral issues, especially the failure of idealized religious beliefs and practices to address societal failures and flaws. Reformer
  • An anti-war activist and advocate questioning individual and national pursuits of violence and war. Anti-War Activist!
  • A statesman, offering political, economic, and social visions for a “new” world free of oppression and abuse, governed by laws, democratic participation, ethical and moral codes, and personal conscience. Statesman!
  • A global leader who liberated citizens around the world from their chains of domestic and foreign government oppression. He enlightened minds and aroused souls to use non-violence” against oppression. Liberator!
  • A living embodiment of human conscience, replete with struggles and pains of abuse and flaws. Conscience!
  • A symbol of for justice, especially the role of justice in moderating positive goals like peace, harmony, and accord, and contesting negative repressive actions. Symbol!
  • An intellectual well-versed in the historical and situation determinants of individual and national behavior, including pseudo-rationalizations for beliefs and actions. Intellectual !
  • A leader capable of mobilizing citizen support of millions across racial and class boundaries in of his beliefs and “dreams,” offering a new vision of what is possible! Visionary!
  • A prophet, emerging at a point in history, demanding revolution in thought and actions. Prophet!

King was more than a man, more than a person, more than a human being, more than an icon! The magnificence of his character and efforts indicate his contributions place him among history’s most important figures. “He is a prophet!”

King was persecuted and assassinated, much as other revolutionary prophets have been persecuted and murdered across history. King’s enduring contributions requires be placed among the prophets. Chart 1 displays some of the King’s roles, functions, and legacies:



Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts brought him onto direct confrontation with the USA government’s power structures. King challenged the establishment, the status quo, which privileged a few with wealth, power, and position, but denied justice for citizens.

The government engaged in “criminal” harassment and assassination of King.  The Oligarchy (i.e., government by a few for selfish, often criminal and illegal reasons) and Plutocracy (i.e., government by the wealthy who consider themselves to know more by virtue of their status) forces considered King’s efforts destructive, to be in direct opposition to their positions.

King made “Democracy,” a living possibility! Citizens can and should participate in governance. Words from President Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” define Democracy: “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Oligarchy and/or Plutocracy control of Democratic government constitute criminal offenses, subject to prosecution and punishment. Current corruptions, cronyism, and crime in the USA government indicate secretive control of government by various State forms (i.e., Deep State Secret State, Shadow State, Surveillance State, Corporate).

King’s inspired words challenged the oppression and suppression of African Americans and other marginalized and oppressed population sectors. In doing so, King became a target for government abuse.

King opposed the Vietnam War, and this position undermined the legitimacy and credibility of the infamous USA “Domino Theory” foreign policy.  The “Domino Theory” was an ill-conceived and impractical foreign policy which was used to justify the USA’s pursuit of regime-change in South Asia (e.g., Indonesia, Malaysia, North Vietnam) and East Asia (e.g., China, South Korea, Taiwan).

Military and corporate industry members who benefitted from war villainized King. Power and profit above principle!  Tragically their hatred and contempt, coupled with their commitment to the existing social and world order, led to decisions to assassinate King. The same “criminal” ethos within the USA government is today considered culpable for assassination of JFK and Robert Kennedy, and the 9/11 attack in New York City.

King’s efforts inspired “revolutionaries” across the world to struggle for freedom and emancipation from colonial domination. In doing so, he was considered a threat to colonial powers across the world, including colonial-era domination in Africa (e.g., Kenya, Congo, Angola) and South America (e.g., Chile, Columbia), and Central America (e.g., Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras).

The Project for a New American Century (PNAC-1996), led by Richard Cheney, ordained the USA as an imperial empire, authorized to invade, occupy, and engage in regime changes in pursuit of imperial interests.

King spoke for the oppressed citizens of the world!  In doing so, King directly challenged plans for USA domination.  One man, and a small group of followers, stood against the most powerful corrupt nation in the world . . .  a momentous encounter!


The end of WWII brought a vacuum in the prior colonial, capitalistic, and criminal, world order.  This world order was tolerable in part because of citizen political and economic ignorance, a passivity generated by citizen trust.  Post-WW II years and the election of new President, brought a false sense of stability in the USA, offering the an opportunity for political parties, government departments, agencies, corporate organizations, and the military to consolidate power and position.  Turn of the Century oligarchy and plutocracy forces re-emerged.

New challenges (e.g. Korean War, State of Israel, wars and civil insurrections, revolutions in colonies, politicized USA governments, assassinations) strengthened the power of a few to control USA directions.  A new “World Order.”

USA citizens, only marginally knowledgeable of the “macro-level forces” influencing their daily lives, were content with the era’s increased opportunities in employment, education, and rising social-status. There was war fatigue, new comforts and conveniences, opportunities to increase income and position.  Government secrecy, lies, and deceit, combined, with citizen trust and passivity, made abusive USA foreign policy possible.

Old prejudices and enemies (e.g., USSR, China, communism) continued, and were exploited as enemies. President Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the powerful “military-industrial complex.” Today this is better termed the “Military-Industrial-Congressional-Educational-Financial Complex.”

EDGAR HOOVER (1895-1972)

“Justice is incidental to law and order.” (J. Edgar Hoover)
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (MLK, Jr.)

J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI from 1924 until his death in 1972, feared King’s efforts words would spark massive civil protests and riots for social reform of legal and civil rights. Hoover also feared King’s words would ignite international rebellions and protests again colonial domination and mentalities. King’s global stature as a voice for Justice was feared by USA foreign policy leaders in the military and corporate worlds.

There was a widespread fear among USA political leaders, African Americans would rebel and revolt against their assigned historical- fixed roles, status, and limited opportunities; they would rise to the call of King’s words, taking to the streets, inflamed by centuries of oppression.

For America’s top leaders, the very essence of American History’s myths of “freedom for all,” was being challenged. To demented minds in seats of power, the demeaning of America’s past must be silenced. Myths and images must be retained.

As King gained followers and stature, there was extensive fear, among the highest offices of our Land, especially for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, an early source of our nation’s current mass surveillance, monitoring, and archiving of mass data.

Hoover’s Co-Int-Pro program violated all legal and moral standards under the guise of national security. Hoover defined any threat to social and political change as a threat to national security.

Hoover was consumed with destroying threats to America’s carefully contrived mythical image as a democracy. He violated citizen rights and privacy, claiming this was necessary to protect national security. How ironic! Paradoxically, the FBI Building bears his name.

Control among a few self-appointed government, corporate, and military officials continues today. Concentration of power by elected and appointed government officials enables them to abuse FISA Court privileges and corrupt justice. Senators and Representatives who remain in office for decades, holding key committee chairmanships, become sources of unmitigated power, much as Hoover’s longevity in office enabled him to engage in criminal abuses.

J. Edgar Hoover collected photos, tapped phones, and secured records; he subsequently blackmailed Reverend King with exposure, and actually encouraged King to commit suicide. It was imperative King be removed: assassinated. Those responsible for the assassination escaped condemnation and criminal prosecution!


Enter Coretta Scott-King, wife and partner of Reverend King, and a comparable courageous force for Justice.  Ms. King filed a court case against the USA government, contending a criminal conspiracy resulted in King’s assassination. She won the case in a jury trial!  In a post-trial commentary, Ms. King stated:

There is abundant evidence of a major high-level conspiracy   in the assassination of my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr.  And the civil court’s unanimous verdict has validated our belief. I wholeheartedly applaud the verdict of the jury and I    feel that justice has been well served in their deliberations.  This verdict is not only a great victory for my family, but also a great victory for America. It is a great victory for truth itself. . .

This verdict, therefore, is a great victory for justice and truth.   It has been a difficult and painful experience to revisit this tragedy, but we felt we had an obligation to do everything in our power to seek the truth. Not only for the peace of mind of our family but to also bring closure and   healing to the nation.

A special word of praise and gratitude is deserved for Coretta Scott-King (April 27, 1927-January 30, 2006), wife and life partner of Reverend King for 15 years, and an iconic figure in her own right. Their partnership altered the history and future of the United States.

Coretta Scott-King was a tireless partner, and co-worker for civil rights and social change. She continued Reverend King’s work following his assassination, and assumed new responsibilities deserving recognition and honor.

Coretta Scott-King is buried next to her husband in Atlanta, Georgia, in the national shrine which she helped develop: The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

A talented musical artist, Ms. King graduated from highly respected Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she majored in music and education; she then went on to the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston, Massachusetts, majoring in voice and violin. It was in Boston she met Reverend King, who was studying for his doctorate at Boston University. They were married on June 18, 1953.

Ms. King’s was active in developing many freedom music and poetry concerts; she was imbued with the spirit of human dignity, rights, and opportunities; she was a partner in Reverend King’s efforts. She joined Reverend King in national and global struggles for freedom, traveling with him on his many trips to Africa, Europe and India.  Ms. King was an international leader, organizing numerous international conferences, coalitions, and peace and human rights marches, gatherings, and demonstrations.

Throughout her marriage, Ms. King, was an active partner with Reverend King in advancing the cause of racial justice and non-violence. Coretta Scott-King was anointed with the calling to heal abuse, violence, and injustice in the USA and across the world. Following Reverend King’s death, Coretta Scott-King continued pressing for justice, equality, and freedom.

Ms. King was the force behind declaring Reverend King’s birthday being designated a national holiday.  Clearly, more should be done to honor Coretta Scott-King for her personal contributions, and for her many contributions to Reverend King’s effort.


Ladies and Gentlemen, I write to you today from Atlanta, Georgia, USA, birthplace and national shrine of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968), clergyman, civil rights leader, social activist, Nobel Prize Laureate, and martyr to the cause of Justice.

I write to welcome you to the Land where one man made the word ‘‘Justice’’ a living reality, where one man’s relentless and indomitable pursuit of “Justice” for his people, and for people everywhere, irrevocably changed history through non-violence protest.

I write to welcome you to the Land where one’s man’s vision, changed a nation’s identity, conscience, and tragic heritage of slavery and abuse of African-Americans.

I write to welcome you to the Land, where one man’s conscience changed the lives of all people living in bondage, devoid of opportunity, desperate for dignity.

It was here, in Atlanta, Georgia, more than 50 years ago, and in a thousand other places across the land, from Alabama to Chicago, from Washington D.C. to California, a deep, resonant, baritone voice of a Black man electrified the air with words of such magnitude, of such righteousness, of such eloquence, of such truth, they crushed the historic roots of oppression, and lifted the human spirit to new levels of hope and possibility.

It was here, in Atlanta, Georgia, a Black man was born who refused to be silenced, denying fear, injury, pain, threats, dangers, and risks to life. Truth cannot be silenced!  It was here, and across the Land, hundreds of thousands harkened to King’s inspiring words, joining in protests at risks to their health, safety, and life.

The task before King, and others who chose the cause of “Justice”, was to undo, but not erase, a history of oppression, and to build a future for all people founded on laws guaranteeing Justice, equality, and liberty, regardless of race, creed, color, gender or any social identity markers or chains.

This, then, is the pressing challenge of life in our global age, as nations withdraw from social responsibilities, as governments dismiss and deny ideals promised and guaranteed by universal human rights, Constitutional laws, and moral codes, and as limits of corruption, cronyism, and crimes exceed tolerance and acceptance.

Today, in memorial of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy, we gather to share ideas, to seek wisdom, to pursue inspiration, and to bond in common purpose.

Let me be clear in my message:

  • I do not write to tell you the profound changes inspired by King, and countless others who followed his ways in the 1960s, are sufficient;
  • Nor do I write to tell you we must be content with broken political barriers, social advances, and emerging opportunities;
  • I write today to tell you King’s words are enshrined in stone to remind us the struggle for Justice will always continue;
  • I write today to tell you the fierce and exhausting struggle begun in the Land of King years ago, has not ended, and will continue for generations to come;
  • I write today to tell you the roots of hate, ignorance, and evil endure, nurtured by protective veils of government corruption, cronyism, and greed, and by religious prejudices sanctioned in doctrine, dogma, and custom;
  • I call upon you today to join King’s call to Justice, now more than a half-century old, as it echoes across time and place in our global age.

LISTEN! Can you hear the cries of masses around the world leading lives of desperation; lives devoid of hope; lives existing from moment to moment, each breath lacking reflexive assurance the next breath will bring solace to an aching body and comfort to a troubled mind?


Today, we are engaged in a global struggle for Justice: There are victims of war and violence! There are victims of labor, gender, and child exploitation! There are victims of oppression! There are victims denied freedom! There are victims of racism, sexism, and ageism! All victims yearn for recognition, support, and Justice.

Know this: All victims are you! There is no other! This was the revolutionary message in King’s words.

Answering King’s call to will not be easy! Heeding King’s call will add burdens to conscience, press discomforting responsibilities upon your daily rounds, and threaten your personal security.

In answering King’s call, your life will never be the same. You will be required to face harsh realities; you will be singled out for abuse from reactionary forces whose inhumanity keeps them locked in hate. Your life will be at risk!

What will not be at risk, however, is your personal integrity, your dignity, your identity, and your position of gratitude, respect, and admiration in the heart and minds of those you help.

Pursuit of Justice is not for the faint of heart. You can expect condemnation, ridicule, insult, entrapment, and defamation. Costs are high, but rewards are more than gold or silver!

Rewards come in knowing, in your brief time on Earth, you have done something to advance the cause of “Justice.” Can anything be more important?  This is  the calling, task, destiny of the prophet!


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Emeritus Professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Campus in Honolulu, Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu.  He is known internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 21 books and more than 300 articles, tech reports, and popular commentaries. His TMS articles may be accessed HERE and he can be reached at

Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for Civil Rights and Social Justice. King adhered to Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. In 1955 he began his struggle to persuade the US Government to declare the policy of racial discrimination in the southern states unlawful. The racists responded with violence to the black people’s nonviolent initiatives. (The Norwegian Nobel Institute)

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Jan 2019.

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One Response to “More Than an “Icon:” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Enduring Legacy”

  1. Beautiful and true sentiments Dr. Marsella. As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. let us remember that his was a life of struggle. It requires great effort, clear thinking and hard work to bring about change from the prevailing order. Dr. King taught us that from those who are in a position to make a difference such action is required.

    The 1977 book “Code Name Zorro” by Mark Lane (with Dick Gregory) lays out a factually compelling case that Dr. King was assassinated by the FBI, or their contractors, on orders from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Dr. King suffered great indignities and constant personal insults as a civil rights leader. As he shifted gears and broadened his ministry to preach against the war in Vietnam, his success in doing so made him a threat to the private profiteering the war provided.

    When his message grew beyond one of securing the same rights for minorities that white people enjoyed, to a message that the war in Vietnam was a national sin, he became a threat to those who were financially invested in the war. Then he was murdered.

    King’s voice had become very powerful and it was powerful for one primary reason, he was telling the truth. Dr. Martin Luther King had begun to move beyond civil rights and the sin of racism in America. He had started to address the harm we were doing to ourselves and to the people of Vietnam in an unwinnable and protracted war there. He had begun to pull the covers off the myths about who we really are as a society, our nation and our true history. He insisted that we see the Vietnamese as people just like us and not some faceless enemy. For what threat were the people of Vietnam to us and why were we really there? He insisted that we live by the Christian morality that we should “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

    The truth is that we are a country founded on the genocide of the native people and the slavery of Africans. Racism is at the very core of our national being. While we claim to have Christian values we fail to embody them. There are those who want to save a fetus from abortion but won’t raise a finger to stop police brutality. America is defined in many respects by its embrace of a racial double standard. It is our original sin, one which we still grapple with to this day.