Virginia Tech’s Wornie Reed, who met Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and joined him on the 1963 March on Washington, feels the civil rights leader has been “whitewashed” and would be disappointed with America’s progress on poverty.

Reed, a sociology professor and the director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center within the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, provided insights on his experience with King and the civil rights leader’s legacy, leading up to the 50th anniversary of his assassination. 

“What people know about King today was not the King I knew,” said Reed, who saw King speak more than 30 times; marched following his shooting death in Memphis on April 4, 1968; and attended his funeral in Atlanta.

Q: Describe the moment you found out MLK had been assassinated?

A: “That was a sad time. It was the day before my birthday. I was driving to my apartment complex when I heard. So I just drove to my apartment and cried, quite a bit.

“The next morning I flew to Memphis. And we did what we did during those times. We marched ... That evening I flew from there to Atlanta and I attended the funeral of Martin Luther King and it was a sad time ... but then we figured we had to get over it and do what he asked us to do.”

Q: What are some things most people misunderstand about MLK?

A: “In 1966, two years before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King had a 28 percent favorability rating among whites in this country. Two decades later, he had a 74-78 percent favorability rating, so why the change? ... One of the changes was that King had been whitewashed. What people know about King today was not the King I knew.

“For example, many people think of King as a peacemaker. I have heard Martin Luther King preach or speak at least 35 to 40 times, and only once did I hear him advocate peace. And that was advocating for peace during the Vietnam War. Other than that, he was responding to people who would say ‘when will we have peace?’... And he would say... ‘Peace is not the absence of tension but peace is the presence of justice,’ and then he would go on to say without justice, there will be no peace.”

“If you do a Google search on him and ‘peace,’ you will come up with those connections millions of times, more than anything else, and that is not what he was. Martin Luther King went to prison 30 times. That is not a peacemaker.” 

Q: If MLK were alive today, what would he think? What would be different?

A: “Martin Luther King would be very disappointed, because the poverty rate for children is higher than when he put his life on the line for it.”

“I study in my center now employment and employment discrimination, and there has been almost no change in the amount of employment discrimination since King was killed. He would be concerned that a white man with a felony record is twice as likely to be hired as a black man with no criminal record. And it just goes on and on and on. So actually, in many instances things are no better — or may be worse. And people are going around and saying they are better.”

“There are a lot of myths going around ... and King would not let us pursue those myths.”

About Wornie Reed

Reed joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2009. Before then, he was director of the Africana Studies Program at the University of Tennessee. Previously, he was a professor of sociology and urban studies at Cleveland State University, where he also directed the Urban Child Research Center.

Before that, he chaired the Department of Black Studies and developed and directed the William Monroe Trotter Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. 

Reed received his bachelor of science degree in secondary education at Alabama State University and his master’s degree and doctorate in sociology from Boston University.

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