If the commemoration speeches are confined to racial issues such as the Trayvon Martin case, they won't be as powerful. But if they also talk about economic inequality, a major issue for white voters, they can also do what King originally did: cast a vision of America that appeals to all types of people.
"Sometimes it makes you feel good to preach to the choir," Podair says, "but after a while you have to go outside the church and find other people for your coalition."
3. Redefine the meaning of punishment
On July 6, 1892, 300 armed detectives confronted a group of unionized steelworkers who had been locked out of a steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The workers, who were striking for better wages at a time when people routinely worked 12-hour-per-day, six-day weeks, fought back with stones and guns. They eventually forced the armed detectives to surrender. Three workers and seven detectives died.
That confrontation is now known as the Homestead Strike. It pitted ordinary workers against steel titan Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie eventually crushed the workers' union, reduced wages and eliminated 500 jobs.
The past can inspire, yet it can also be intimidating. Some believe that contemporary Americans are too jaded and lazy to take the risks that 19th century workers at the Homestead Mill took. Can anyone envision striking fast-food workers fighting pitched battles against armed troops today?
One historian who has studied movements, though, says the belief that modern Americans lack the right stuff to rise up is "hogwash."
Sam Pizzigati is the author of "The Rich Don't Always Win," a book that traces how ordinary Americans in the first part of the 20th century rose up against plutocrats like Carnegie to create a vibrant middle class. Pizzigati calls that battle a "forgotten triumph."
When people experience enough pain, they will mobilize, says Pizzigati, a labor journalist and associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
"When people's situation becomes worse, when something changes and things that people took for granted have suddenly gone by the board and they see their position in society sinking, that's a powerful factor that can drive movements," Pizzigati says.
He points to the Great Depression as an example. In 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression, the top 1% of Americans took in 23.9% of the nation's income. The rich ruled. (In 2007, on the eve of the Great Recession, the 1% took in 23.5% of the nation's income, according to a University of California Berkeley study.)
In 20 years, though, a political movement arose that "totally" transformed the nation, he says. A "New Deal" coalition led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced a series of reforms to protect Americans from the worst features of unrestrained capitalism. They created Social Security, strong banking regulations, raised taxes on the rich and protected the rights of unions to organize.
The New Deal is a classic example of the weak and powerless -- out of work Americans standing in bread lines -- triumphing over the fierce resistance of many of the wealthiest and most powerful elites in America who dismissed the New Deal as socialism and class warfare.
Pizzigati calls the New Deal an "egalitarian triumph."
He says most Americans in the "Roaring '20s" seemed to accept the economic inequality of that time. Few people thought anything could change, and the courts often ruled against any attempts to protect ordinary workers from workplace injuries and low pay.
Yet that same generation rose up to make the New Deal a reality, he says.
"As dark as things may seem at a given moment," he says, "things can change very rapidly when a social movement takes off."
Sometimes there is no cataclysmic event that inspires people to risk it all to join a movement. It can be the steady buildup of humiliation as people stew over being treated as second-class citizens.
Consider the gay and lesbian movement for equality. Palmer, author of "Healing the Heart of Democracy," says that for years, many gay and lesbians suffered in silence as people denigrated their humanity. That changed when a critical mass decided that the pain of "behaving on the outside in a way that contradicts the truth" that they held inside was too much.
"They redefined punishment," Palmer says.
"The redefinition goes like this: No punishment anyone can lay on me can possibly be any worse than the punishment I lay on myself by conspiring in my own diminishment."
4. Divide the elites
It's easy to demonize "The Man" if you're talking with friends in a late-night dorm room rap session. But you're going to need "The Man" if you're going to beat "The Man," some historians say.
"Movements at some point have to get support from the elites," says Kazin, the Georgetown historian. "You need legitimation. You need some authorities to sort of say we may not support everything you're doing but basically you're in the right."