The audacity of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream

Posted on January 18, 2021 in Inclusion History

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors

Today, Americans observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday to commemorate the life and death of a remarkable human being.

On government websites, in news feeds and across social media platforms, Americans will learn the basic facts of King’s life: that he was born in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929; that he earned a PhD in theology from Boston University; and that he led a civil rights movement that culminated in the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Fair Housing Act (1968).

They will learn too about his assassination in Memphis, Tenn. Speaking to striking sanitation workers on the night of April 3, 1968 and riffing on the Biblical image of the mountain top, King eerily predicted his death. While he’d like to live a long life — “longevity has its place,” he said — it didn’t really matter what happened to him now because the Lord had allowed him to climb to the top of the mountain and look over. “I may not get there with you,” he said. “But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

Less than 24 hours later, he lay in a pool of blood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum.

Finally, Americans will learn something about King’s dream, most clearly articulated in his August 1963 address to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

And yet if all of the above is true, it’s also incomplete, because King’s dream of racial justice included economic justice, making it more audacious and more radical.

From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King reminded Americans that one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Indeed, “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a small ghetto to a larger one.”

What he alluded to in 1963, King centred in 1967: genuine equality includes economic equality. In a speech to Atlanta’s Hungry Club Forum in May, he likened poverty to a “monstrous octopus” that “spreads its nagging prehensile tentacles into cities and hamlets and villages all over our nation.” Ending poverty, however, will be much harder than ending segregation, he correctly predicted. After all, “it didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate lunch counters,” but “it will cost the nation billions of dollars to get rid of poverty.”

Against this backdrop, King launched the Poor People’s Campaign in late 1967, a multiracial movement to force poverty up the national agenda. In early 1968, plans were made for what he called a “camp-in” in Washington, a tent city that would show the world how America treats its poor. A few weeks before his assassination, King appealed for a national policy of full employment, a guaranteed income and a massive investment in affordable housing.

The Poor People’s Campaign went ahead anyway, but ended in failure, as he sensed it would. This is still the same America, he told the Hungry Club Forum, that told the newly freed slaves that they wouldn’t be getting the forty acres and a mule needed to make their freedom, in his word, “meaningful.” Indeed, America has never shown a commitment to “genuine equality,” he said.

On the first anniversary of King’s death, on April 4, 1969, Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest friend and right-hand man, led a memorial service at the Lorraine Motel, vowing to continue King’s fight against poverty. Often referred to as King’s alter ego, Abernathy understood the audacity of King’s dream, that genuine equality also means economic equality.

Tragically, King’s dream is as relevant today as it was more than half a century ago: on nearly every economic, social and health index, Black Americans lag behind white Americans, a fact confirmed by the pandemic and amplified by Black Lives Matter. Americans are right to remember Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday, but they have forgotten the man who understood that the right to sit at a lunch counter didn’t mean much to someone who couldn’t afford lunch.

Donald Wright teaches political science at the University of New Brunswick.

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