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Monday, April 22, 2024

Embracing the full scope of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream

Ignoring King’s more radical vision does a disservice to his legacy

In the highly-publicized parts of the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that we’re taught in elementary school, Martin Luther King, Jr. dreams of a world where people live in harmony and are not judged by their skin color. It’s a compelling vision, and it’s the centerpiece of the Martin Luther King, Jr. who’s publicly celebrated today.

But how many of us were taught that in the same speech, King said “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality?” How many of us learned that, in King’s words, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism?” Or that he said “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges”?

By and large, we aren’t taught that King was vocally opposed to the Vietnam War and was “increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor.” He was clear in his belief that he could not condemn “the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos” without condemning the violence enacted by the United States. He spoke against militarism and imperialism, recognizing that war is destructive to the poor in both the invading and the invaded nations.

We are not taught that King was deeply concerned with poverty and the deleterious effects of capitalism. In 1952, he wrote that “capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” He led the Poor People’s Campaign and planned a mass movement of the economically disenfranchised across racial lines. He articulated class solidarity as a weapon against racism. He stood in solidarity with striking workers and encouraged a citywide work stoppage in Memphis to support the strike.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby recently wrote that racism “is only a minor problem now” and “In less than two generations, America transformed itself from a largely racist society to a largely non-racist one.” While it would be impossible to deny that, in many important ways, the United States is less racist now than it was 50 years ago, saying racism is over is a shockingly ignorant claim. It’s one that’s enabled by the whitewashed version of King and the Civil Rights Movement that nearly all of us are taught in school –– America was racist, then Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream and we all lived happily ever after.

Racism is still alive and well in America. Police kill Black people at disproportionate rates, and Black people are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites. By 2020, the median white household “will own 86 percent more wealth than its black counterpart,” largely due to systemic racism in housing and financial policies. America still has a largely racist society, and it will continue to have one as long as we deny that fact in favor of a feel-good narrative of peaceful progress.

It’s an insult to the legacy of King, the many people who fought alongside him and those who continue to fight for racial justice to celebrate a whitewashed version of him. That version may not offend anyone, but it fails to challenge and change individual and systemic racism in a time when we are desperately in need of challenge and change.

Written by: The Editorial Board


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