Virginia Tech professor who knew Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on legacy

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Wednesday marks 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a day when many celebrate the reverend and honor his legacy. 

Now, a Virginia Tech professor who knew King is talking about the change he believed the reverend was working toward. He says that the Martin Luther King Jr. people know and learn about today is not the same Martin Luther King Jr. that he knew.

Wornie Reed is a social policy expert and professor of sociology and Africana studies at Virginia Tech. He says he first met King during the 1963 March on Washington. 

After that, he says he saw King speak more than 30 times, marched after his assassination in Memphis and attended his funeral in Atlanta. Reed had seen King three times in the month before he was assassinated, and says the King he had come to know was not focused on making peace. Instead, he was focused on change and achieving that change through any means possible.

“He used to say, ‘Peace is not the absence of tension, peace is the presence of justice and until there is justice there will be no peace,’” says Reed. “Other words, we won’t let there be any peace, we’re going to keep fighting for justice. This would be in response to many editorials and many public officials saying, ‘When are we going to get some peace? When are you going to stop all of this rebel rousing?’”

Reed says he was saddened to hear about Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s assassination 50 years ago, on the evening of April 4, 1968, but he said he was not surprised. Supporters and even King himself expected an attempt on his life to come much earlier. Reed says during a sermon he heard King deliver five years before the assassination, the reverend said he didn’t expect to live much longer and hoped that those who stood with him would continue his work. 

Reed says one of the most important things he wants people to know is that MLK was not the peacemaker that many believe him to be, and in fact he says King was not even well liked during his time on earth. 

Just two years before the assassination, King had a favorability rating of just 28 percent among white people in America. 

If King were alive today, Reed believes Martin Luther King, Jr. would be disappointed at things like the poverty rate, which he says has not gotten better but has actually gotten worse for children in the US. 

“I would argue he would be doing exactly the same thing he was doing then, which is different than most people think he was doing,” Reed said. “He was out agitating for some economic changes, advocating for the end of the war. So he was really fighting three things: the evils of poverty, the evils of racism and the evils of war.” 

After the assassination, the favorability rating for Martin Luther King Jr. jumped more than 74 percent. Reed says he believes that change in attitude is because people stopped talking about the trouble King was stirring up and the changes he was fighting for, instead focusing on him as a peacemaker.