Next Monday is the national celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Across the country this week, schoolchildren will read about the Dr. King’s dream. The networks will broadcast excerpts from his speech at the March on Washington. Many will go to see the riveting depiction of the turning point in the struggle for voting rights in the movie “Selma.”
How should we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday? Surely the best way to respect his legacy is to remove him from mythology and remember him in history. Dr. King was far more than a mighty orator. He was a man of radical moral vision, a movement leader of strategic genius, a courageous organizer, and a savvy political tactician.I remember him on his last birthday. He had breakfast with his family. Then he came to work where his focus was on organizing a poor people’s march on Washington. The march would bring together poor people across lines of race, religion, nationality, region, and gender. It would culminate in Washington with demonstrations and civil disobedience demanding action on poverty.
Dr. King had already broken with President Johnson over the Vietnam War. King knew that the bombs that were being dropped over Vietnam were exploding in our urban ghettos and barrios, for the war on poverty was being surrendered to fight the war in Vietnam. He always taught that the freedom symphony included not only civil rights and the end of segregation, voting rights and the assertion of citizenship, but also economic rights, equal opportunity from the start. This, he knew, would be the hardest of all to achieve.
Now 47 years after that last birthday, Dr. King’s vision has still not been fulfilled. We are free, but not equal — the gains we’ve made are now being undermined by the Supreme Court and the conservative, confederate southern ideologues. Segregation by race is being displaced by vertical disparities by race and class.
Inequality has reached new Gilded Age heights, as the few capture all of the rewards of growth, while most families struggle to stay afloat. Our schools are still marked by a savage inequality. The children of working families are better educated than ever, but the price for many is unprecedented college debt that shackles their futures. A prison industrial complex imprisons more of our citizens — disproportionately people of color — than any other nation in the world.Hunger afflicts millions of Americans children each night. African-American unemployment remains more than twice that of whites. The typical American family lost wealth in the recent recession, and middle class African-Americans and Latinos got clobbered. Median wealth of whites is now 13 times that of blacks and 10 that of Latinos. But most Americans are vulnerable (a typical white household has total wealth of $141,000, as opposed to black family wealth of $11,000 and Latinos of $13,700.
Dr. King had a dream, but he was not a dreamer. He called for investment and reconstruction in our communities, bottom up. We bailed out the richest, but battered and abandoned the poorest.
He knew the road would be long, the hills high, the valleys low. His faith was that the struggle would continue, that the better angels of people would not allow them to accept continued economic violence or adjust to economic injustice. His faith was that ordinary heroes — citizens roused to act — would continue to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He would applaud the protests calling the police to account, but he would push for a positive agenda that addresses the underlying economic injustice that, as the Kerner Commission concluded decades ago, the police are forced to enforce.
Next week, we will celebrate a man who called Americans to protest unjust laws and closed doors, led the oppressed into the streets, taught them to resist injustice nonviolently. He was a man who never held an office, never led an army, never amassed a personal fortune, was jailed and eventually murdered for his acts — and surely did as much to transform America as Lincoln or Roosevelt. His legacy to us is the example he set. Everyone can be great, he taught, for everyone can serve.
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