Reclaiming King: Beyond 'I Have a Dream'

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. --Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, "Letter from Birmingham Jail," April 1963
The "I Have a Dream" speech has become a cliché. It's played every Martin Luther King Jr. Day and perhaps again during our so-called "Black History Month." With each passing year it feels more distant to me, more quaint. Its power has always been its simplicity and clarity, but its unassailable message has turned the man who delivered it into more of a myth than a human being made of flesh and blood.

I have vivid memories from my childhood of watching the famous speech in class and hearing an obnoxious white classmate of mine mock King's dramatic tones and rhetoric while other white students chuckled uncomfortably. Aside from wanting to strangle this kid, in part because I was so fascinated with King, I also felt far removed from the black-and-white images on the screen and from the dire times in which he and his supporters lived. Even his name -- the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., intimidated me. It felt more literary than literal.

My father is a black Baptist preacher in the King tradition, he even attended King's alma mater, Morehouse College. As a child, I was encouraged to essentially worship King. His striking face adorns several walls of our home. The sound of his voice moved me to tears before I could even comprehend what he was saying. It was the sound of truth. Truth so deep it both hurt and inspired. As I grew older I was indoctrinated with the King story and was encouraged by my father to explore beyond King's 1963 plea for racial equality.

After his life was tragically cut short, as was a similarly honest and righteous Robert Kennedy a few months later, we, not just in the black community, but in a nation as a whole, have spent the past forty years trying to grapple with his legacy. The mainstream media would like us to look at "I Have a Dream" and virtually nothing else. They can package that speech as a nice two-minute nostalgia clip. But I believe every good progressive American should look more to the King of '68 for inspiration.

By that time King's house had already been firebombed. He'd been wiretapped, stabbed, and assaulted with a brick. He was never uncontroversial, and although he never officially claimed to be a member of any political party, his positions and message were unapologetically progressive. These were in some ways darker times than his earlier more celebrated days during the Montgomery bus boycotts and the peace he helped achieve in Birmingham.

During the final two years of his life, King took on the far more complex de facto racism of northern cities like Chicago, addressed labor inequality, and took a very bold and highly criticized stance against the Vietnam War:
"As I have walked," King told the crowd assembled in Riverside Church a year before his assassination, "among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.
But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."
By 1968, King's opposition to Vietnam and his unwavering commitment to nonviolence made him largely an outcast. The far right still despised him and everything he represented. But even more telling was the rejection he received from the left. He endured editorials from the Democratic establishment calling for a moratorium on civil rights and a break from marches. He was called a "disservice to his cause" and his people. New, younger voices in the Civil Rights Movement began ridiculing his nonviolent stance, calling him out-of-touch and out-of-date.

Only the anti-war movement was prescient enough to see the wisdom of King's views at that time. In fact, there were efforts to recruit King to run for president on a ticket with activist and baby book guru Dr. Benjamin Spock, but King wasn't interested.

Now, forty years after his death, it seems like almost everyone wants to claim King. Mitt Romney got himself embroiled in controversy when he claimed to have seen his father march with King as a child, only to have to later admit that he didn't actually see anything of the sort and the "with" was most likely only in spirit as opposed to actuality.

On the Democratic side, Sens. Obama and Clinton sparred when Obama tried to draw parallels between himself and King, and Clinton tried, in a characteristically self-serving way, to suggest that King would not have been able to see his dream fulfilled (with the '64 Civil Rights Act and '65 Voting Rights Act) if it hadn't been for legislators like LBJ (i.e., her).

The King they all hope to be identified with is the beatific, gloriously positive King of 1963, but I am fairly certain that none of them would be as comfortable linking themselves to the irascible, fiercely anti-war and increasingly radical King of 1968.

That King would most likely have just as vociferously opposed the Iraq war today as he did the Vietnam War then. This is the King who launched a "Poor People's Campaign," a thoroughly progressive campaign that was considered ambitious for its time and whose job has yet to be completed in part because King was killed, but also because its goal of organizing America’s poor to fight for economic justice with regards to both compensation and treatment, was so large that no single leader could accomplish it on his own. The "Poor People's Campaign" extended beyond the African-American community. The goal was a "multiracial army of the poor" including whites, Native Americans and Hispanic Americans.

King traveled to severely impoverished communities with camera crews to shed light on poverty in America, knowing that there would be no symbolic victories or positive press coverage. King called for a "radical redistribution of economic power" in 1968, words that no establishment politician would be happy to associate themselves with expressing today.

During this period King was growing more certain of the inevitability of his own death. Only 39 years old, with young children and his wife at home, he put his life on the line every single day for nearly a decade. None of our current crop of candidates on either side can hold a candle to what he experienced in terms of burden and sacrifice.

Most of us know the vague details of Dr. King's murder in April of 1968, but few point out that he was in Memphis at the time in support of a racially polarizing labor dispute involving black sanitation workers. "All labor has dignity," Dr. King told the striking workers, "but you're doing another thing. You are reminding not only Memphis, but the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages."

Right before his death he had been delayed getting on a flight because of a bomb threat, and his mortality was very much on his mind when he delivered his final -- and some argue greatest -- speech, in which he said:
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Even if the spiritual content and motivation of his words don't ring true for you, the essence of his bearing certainly should. King was a fighter, and he would not relent in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Forty years after his death, our nation is in a state of crisis economically, socially, racially, internationally and environmentally. We may be looking at yet another election for the presidency where we may have little choice but to pick between the lesser of two evils.

And yet King's passion is still with us, only if we choose to access it. Just because he was motivated by love and peace doesn't mean that his message needed to be soft-spoken and genteel. It can be and should be about reclaiming power. King himself said:
There is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.
So this year, when the cable networks repeat the "I Have a Dream" speech over and over again and intersperse it with the talking heads that bicker about whether or not King's hope for racial equality has been achieved, think of the King of '68 who fought for labor, fought against war, and launched a powerful movement that is very much still alive today and whose work is still not finished.

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