MLK’s ‘Dream’, Unrealized and Undigested

There’s a refreshingly thought-provoking Associated Press item on the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in connection with the holiday commemorating him and his critical legacy. I especially like how the article points out that, contrary to the comforting revisionism that reigns, King was not universally acclaimed and supported after his advent in American national consciousness, even a decade after his legendary speech.

It’s relatively well-known that elements in the government—especially J. Edgar Hoover, who was convinced that he was a Communist plant—ignored the fact that by the end of his life he was a radical social critic who applied his vision to far more than race relations. As he began to apply his values holistically and across racial lines, he lost support among many erstwhile allies. Some of King’s most important and heartfelt beliefs have gone done the memory hole, it seems. Deepti Hajela writes in the piece:

“Everyone knows, even the smallest kid knows about Martin Luther King, can say his most famous moment was that ‘I have a dream speech,’” said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Buffalo. “No one can go further than one sentence. All we know is that this guy had a dream, we don’t know what that dream was.”

Like the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the Reverend King was a human being and a leader whose vision evolved over time. Most critically for our current climate of intense government pressure on dissent and a largely domesticated Fourth Estate, King, like those prophets, spoke truth to power, and he did so without carefully circumscribing his message to politically safe areas of conflict.

Even if it meant losing some “mainstream” support. King was addressing a host of hot-button political issues in addition to racism and segregation at the time of his untimely death. Hajela again:

At the time of his death, King was working on anti-poverty and anti-war issues. He had spoken out against the Vietnam War in 1967, and was in Memphis in April 1968 in support of striking sanitation workers.

It’s both fascinating and depressing to consider how popular culture and even many of King’s self-proclaimed political inheritors on the Left have systematically neutered King’s legacy by treating him as exclusively concerned with race relations. This despite the fact that by the end of his life, King saw and loudly proclaimed that all types of oppression and injustice spring from the same indifference to human dignity. Far from limiting his activism to racism, he spoke out with force and profundity about a wide range of pressing and controversial issues of his day.

The Zeleza Post’s discussion of King’s mission and his legacy’s subsequent commodification deserves to be quoted at length for its insight as well as eloquence. Remembering Martin Luther King: Beyond the Sanitization of a Dreamer:

Dr. King represents America’s enduring and unfulfilled quest to transcend these sins, to raise its low moral worth to match its enormous material wealth, both of which arose out the two original sins and their reproduction over the generations, to mend and heal the racial wounds of its sordid past. That is why Dr. King’s message is often reduced to symbolic racial reconciliation, and his civil rights struggles are bled of the substantive demands for racial equality, namely, the need to address the distribution of economic resources and power. Lest we forget, it was economics that engendered slavery, rather than racism as such, although following the fateful embrace of slavery and racism, economics and race worked inseparably to reproduce each other.

This is to suggest that Dr. King, both the man and the message, have been willfully oversimplified. He was a complex man who led a complex movement that left a complex legacy. Dr. King and the civil rights struggles were focused on three principal goals: civil enfranchisement of African Americans and other racial minorities, anti-militarism which he forcefully articulated in his opposition to the Vietnam War, and economic equality embodied in his Poor People’s Campaign. To read or listen to his Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence, is to appreciate the true measure of the man, his unflinching courage in challenging the powerful forces of the military-media industrial complex whose ideologues proceeded to attack him viciously. And let us remember he had gone to Memphis to participate in a strike by black sanitation workers when he was assassinated. He had launched the Poor People’s Campaign, which he hoped would assemble a “multiracial army of the poor” to march on Washington to force Congress to enact a poor people’s bill of rights, in the face of opposition from many of his fellow civil rights leaders and lieutenants, and the intense hostility of the capitalist media and establishment.

Dr. King clearly understood that civil rights, anti-militarism, and the struggle against poverty were inseparable, that racism, imperialism and inequality were each other’s keepers, that civil freedoms at home were unsustainable with persistent poverty and wars of aggression abroad; that the Vietnam War drained resources that could be used to improve living standards for the poor, that civil and political rights (e.g. the right to vote), economic, social, and cultural rights (e.g. right to education, housing, and economic well being), and solidarity rights (e.g. the right to peace), were interrelated, interdependent, and indivisible. In today’s human rights discourse, he would be regarded as a champion of a holistic conception of human rights, an advocate of social democracy, and a supporter of progressive internationalism.

Even accepting the dubious proposition that the systematic racism against which King battled is a thing of the past—tell that to young black men who get caught up in America’s scandalously racialized justice system, with its draconian, life-ruining punishments for blacks for offenses that, when perpetrated by whites time and time again “happen” to draw light sentences—we’re hardly out of the woods. The other socioeconomic problems Dr. King valiantly crusaded against are by most accounts alive and well.

It seems to me that given America’s glaring gaps today in economic justice at home and principled, constructive involvement in the outside world, King’s “dream” speech should if anything play as a stinging reminder of how little of his mission has been fulfilled. Instead, his stirring words are more often than not deployed not as a call for renewed introspection or commitment to equality, but as a self-congratulatory coda to America’s modern social history that seems highly premature, not to mention fundamentally at odds with the message of the man and the holiday being celebrated. Like the self-satisfied Virginia Slims billboards of the past, in some respects we’ve come a long way, baby, but the fact that we’ve reduced Reverend King’s holistic and unapologetically revolutionary message to the toothless, politically correct sermonizing of a Benetton commercial shows that his dream remains more than unfulfilled—it remains scandalously undigested.