What Preservationists Can Learn From Martin Luther King, Jr.


Today I am working from home, in my living room, with inaugural coverage running on the TV, a feverish 5yr-old brewing an ear infection snuggled on my lap, and three other children who all have the day off school, one of whom mercilessly and relentlessly practices his basketball dribbling skills despite my pleas for peace and quiet.

Among it all, I am contemplating Martin Luther King, Jr.  (And not just because he’s the reason I’m working in noisy chaos today instead of blissful silence.)

There are so many legacies that King gave us, and most of us are intimately familiar with them all.  We’ve learned about him from the time we were small, adding more and more insight as we grew older, applied that knowledge to our understanding of freedom, equality, revolution, peace.

But what can we preservationists learn from Martin Luther King, Jr.?

We aren’t generally the violent sort and have already embraced his lessons on peaceful protest and civil disobedience.  We already value freedom and equality and aren’t known for our attempts to suppress the rights of others (unless by “others” you mean McMansions).

Then I wondered, but what lessons might we learn if we studied the man and not just his ideals?

Here are the ones I learned thinking about him today…


Maybe sometimes we should be a little less diplomatic and politically correct and just confront things head-on.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was rather blunt in his manner of speaking, he certainly didn’t mince words or dance around difficult subjects.  When King talked about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation in his 1962 “I have a Dream” speech, he said:

[sws_blockquote align=”left” alignment=”” cite=”” quotestyles=”style01″]But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.[/sws_blockquote]

If you’ve read MLK at all or listened to him speak (and if you’ve done neither you need to remedy that) you already know he’s good with words, tone, and inflection.  The man was a master orator.  Part of what made his words so powerful was his refusal to pull any punches – he told it like it was, in all its horror, as straight-forward as he needed to be.

He didn’t worry if he was going to offend someone, he didn’t put things in gentle terms or strive to be politically correct in his speeches – he just confronted reality head-on without putting any pretty wrapping paper on it.

[note color=”#f8f8f6″]Questions this made me wonder…

What realities are we preservationists hesitant to confront?

Are we too diplomatic in our confrontations?

Do we dance around difficult subjects for fear of reprisal?

The next time we confront a preservation reality, how can we do so in a more powerful way?[/note]


We should follow our confrontations with powerfully moving visions for the future.

King loved to use stories and metaphors and all sorts of literary elements in his speaking.  When he did so, he engaged the hearts of his listeners and inspired them to challenge the status quo.  And they did.  By the millions.  His ability to articulate a vision for the future that appealed to listener’s values, wants and needs, hopes and aspirations was one of the most effective aspects of King’s leadership.

[sws_blockquote align=”left” alignment=”” cite=”” quotestyles=”style01″]I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”[/sws_blockquote]

Who can read or listen that without tearing up? It’s sheer poetry.  And it isn’t just the use of vivid imagery and powerful storytelling – he’s tapped right into a dream that many of his listeners can instantly relate to, and then he’s given them a powerfully moving vision of the future of that dream.

[note color=”#f8f8f6″]Questions this made me wonder….

Are we preservationists using enough stories to communicate our cause?

What stories can we be using to engage the hearts of the people we are speaking to?

What are the dreams of our listeners?

How does historic preservation

Are we articulating the powerful vision we see for the future of our built history?

Are we articulating that vision in a way that makes others want to achieve that future?[/note]


And just because this speech, his voice, the cause he championed, and how it turned out is all so amazing, here is his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech for your enjoyment today: