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Thousands of Philadelphia demonstrators took to the streets on Monday to "Reclaim MLK." (Photo: @AshAgony/Twitter)

Taking Back the Streets and Their Stories, Thousands Reclaim MLK Day

In year that saw renewed calls for racial justice, over 50 nationwide demonstrations held to 'desanitize' the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

Lauren McCauley

Thousands of people took to the streets on Monday rebuking what they say is the "sanitized" version of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and calling to restore the legacy of a man whose protests, like their own, were never "convenient."

The nationwide actions marked the birthday of the civil rights leader in a year that saw renewed calls for racial justice in the face of persistent inequality, discrimination, and police targeting of communities of color.

Capping off almost a week of demonstrations, organizational meetings, and other pledges of resistance—all done with the intent to "Reclaim MLK"—grassroots coalition Ferguson Action issued a specific call for Monday: "Do as Martin Luther King would have done and resist the war on Black Lives with civil disobedience and direct action. Take the streets, shut it down, walk, march,  and whatever you do, take action."

In Philadelphia, an estimated ten thousand people marched through the city center before holding a rally outside of Independence Hall. Organized by a broad-based coalition MLK D.A.R.E., the Philadelphia demonstrators are calling for an end to the racially-biased "Stop and Frisk" policing program, a $15 per hour minimum wage and the right to form unions, and a fully funded, democratically controlled local school system.

"Here in Philadelphia and from shore to shore, a black child is likely to be poorer, go to worse-funded schools, and more likely to go to jail than his white brother," said Leslie MacFadyen, founder of the Ferguson National Response Network. "We are called to follow in King's footsteps this year as we march in his legacy, and in the legacy of thousands of other men and women of his generation who stood up and said enough is enough." 

In St. Louis, Missouri, which since the protests the followed the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown has become the new touchstone in the racial justice movement, remembrances of King were attended by hundreds of people, many of whom wore "Justice for Mike Brown" T-shirts and carried signs that read, "Black Lives Matter."

Citing King's work, which was built upon a "bold vision that was radical, principled, and uncompromising," Ferguson Action explained in a statement ahead of the Day of Action why the true nature and genesis of the civil rights movement is so relevant today:

The present day Movement for Black Lives draws a direct line from the legacy of Dr. King and the current struggle we face today. Unfortunately, Dr. King’s legacy has been clouded by efforts to soften, sanitize, and commercialize it. Impulses to remove Dr. King from the movement that elevated him must end. We resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless members of our community into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits. From here on, MLK weekend will be known as a time of national resistance to injustice. This MLK weekend we will walk in the legacy of Dr. King and the movement that raised him

In Cleveland, activists gathered at the park where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by a police officer before taking part in a four-mile march. Demonstrators in numerous cities are holding either a four-mile march or a four minute die-in at the beginning of their demonstration to highlight the four minutes Rice "lay without first aid," and the four hours Brown "lay on the ground" after being fatally shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

"Some people think that we’re out here just causing problems," said Cleveland organizer Courtney Drain. "MLK marched in the streets, he blocked traffic. He wasn’t convenient."

In Chicago, protesters participating in another four-mile march through downtown stopped outside the local ABC affiliate where they chanted "shame on you!" for not covering the week's actions. "Black Stories Matter!" one protester declared.

Oakland, California Mayor Libby Schaaf was awakened by roughly 50 protesters chanting outside her home. According to reports, the demonstrators illuminated tall letters that spelled "Dream," in honor of King's famous 1963 speech. The group also projected King quotes on the mayor's garage door and drew chalk outlines of bodies on the street. Later in the day, activists held a die-in outside a movie theater playing the civil rights film "Selma."

According to the Ferguson National Response Network, over 50 nationwide events with images and details shared online with live streams or under the hashtags #ReclaimMLK and #WWMLKDO.

Other large demonstrations were held in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington D.C.

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