Most Americans are taught about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in rather simple, sanitized terms: He was black, studied Gandhi, fought for racial equality, marched on Washington, had a dream, and now Obama is president. He’s neatly tucked away as a historical figure we can look fondly back on, rather than a radical source of moral conscience whose dreams remain unfulfilled and whose message should continue to be echoed through the halls of wealth and power today.
While we rightfully should look with pride on August 28th, 1963, and the famed “I Have a Dream Speech,” as a moment which proved the power of humanity when collectively organized into a mass movement and mobilized for justice. King’s leadership undoubtedly proved invaluable for the movement which ultimately was able to defeat Jim Crow segregation in the former Confederacy.
However, as we celebrate Dr. King and the legacy of Civil Rights movement, it’s also important to realize the full, complex picture of this radical agitator whose words inspired one of the greatest social justice movements in our nation’s history. Indeed, even in his “I Have a Dream” speech, King asserted “We will not be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,” a subtle hint that the cause for economic justice was something he saw intrinsically linked to struggle for civil rights, a cause which would move to the forefront of his priorities as his consciousness evolved during the post-Civil Rights period.
To truly pay homage his legacy, perhaps we should read Dr. King’s actual words and consider their relevance today, with a particular eye on the speeches that are not as widely known and celebrated. What follows is a small selection.
In the period beyond the Civil Rights movement, King’s social critique expanded to the global stage, famously denouncing Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam at a time when dire poverty still haunted black ghettos nationally, increasingly inspiring radical black youth to turn to violent resistance. Despite warnings that he would break the Liberal coalition and alliance the White House, Dr. King concluded that he could not denounce violence at home while ignoring violence abroad. On April 4, 1967 delivered his "Beyond Vietnam" speech in Riverside Church in New York City:
As I have walked 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 ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask 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.
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
Decent-paying jobs, “programs of social uplift” like universal healthcare and education for all, and putting an end to militarism abroad were all dreams of Dr. King, and in his latter years he increasingly drew connections between militarism abroad and the racism and economic disparity at home.
On August 16, 1967, King delivered a speech titled "Where Do We Go From Here?" to the 11th annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention. In it he denounced the U.S. economic system, which allowed for such massive disparity of wealth (a problem only exacerbated today):
I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. (Yes) There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. (Yes) And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. (Yes) But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (All right) It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” (All right) These are words that must be said. (All right)…
What I’m saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. (Yes) Capitalism forgets that life is social. (Yes, Go ahead) And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. (Speak) [applause] It is found in a higher synthesis (Come on) that combines the truths of both. (Yes) Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. (All right) These are the triple evils that are interrelated.
In fact (while used as ammo by polemicists like Glenn Beck), King had previously endorsed a radical restructuring of the economic system, saying in 1965 “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children” (A look at King’s economics).
In one of his final speeches, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” King attacked the heart of our society’s dominant conservative ideology, the very idea that economic success depended solely on the one’s use of their “bootstraps,” and pointed out the historical link between racism and poverty in the U.S.
Now there is another myth that still gets around: it is a kind of over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of the slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.
They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma. But beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery two hundred and forty-four years.
In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.
Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this, and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, “You’re free,” and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, though an act of Congress was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.
But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every years not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.
We must come to see that the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice.
There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia.
…this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world—and nothing’s wrong with that—this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.
While Barack Obama proudly stands in front of Dr. King’s memorial to honor the fallen leader, his and most of the reflective words we hear omit much of what King struggled for, and ignore the fact that he did so in opposition to the major institutions of political power, militarism, mass media, and the ruling class itself.
When we reflect on the daily struggle of the impoverished, working poor, and fragile working class today, it may help to remember some of King’s last words.
"You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity."
No president can challenge the forces of wealth and power without the American populace forcing him to do so. Perhaps to truly honor Dr. King’s legacy, we can build and maintain the unity he spoke of and start picking up where he left off.