MLK and civil rights movement were more radical than we often remember, says Smithsonian historian

Historian Christopher Wilson will give the keynote address at Wayne State University’s MLK Day celebration on Monday, Jan. 17.

Wayne State University will be one of many local institutions celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy as we approach MLK Day. This year, the theme of Wayne State’s celebration is “Looking Back to Look Ahead,” which the university says “will reflect on Dr. King’s teachings and how we live them today and into the future.”

You should be skeptical of any history that makes you feel comfortable.” —Christopher Wilson, Smithsonian National Museum of American History

The scheduled keynote speaker for the event says King’s legacy is often sugarcoated in modern America, and that many Americans should not be so confident they would have sided with King and the civil rights movement if they had been politically active at the time.

Listen: Historian Christopher Wilson talks about MLK’s legacy.



Christopher Wilson is the director of experience design and the African American history program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He’s a hometown Detroiter who previously worked at The Henry Ford in Dearborn.

Wilson will deliver the keynote address at Wayne State University’s 2022 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration on Monday, Jan. 17.

“You can easily look at polls to see that most people were against the tactics of the movement and its leaders. So it was radical,” says Wilson.

“We’ve definitely created a comfortable, ahistorical Dr. King,” he says. “What they were really fighting for from the beginning was that segregation was the most obvious point of a systemic racism sword. It was really about remaking a society and destroying … systems of oppression.”

Wilson says that history is almost always more complicated than we acknowledge.

“You should be skeptical of any history that makes you feel comfortable,” he says.

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