OP-ED: The Radical Vision of Martin Luther King Jr.

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lashA few nights ago I was talking with several folks while we waited to begin a conflict skills class. All of us in one way or another are trying to make the world a better place. We work in government and nonprofits, some are paid and others volunteers, and we are focused on several different populations who find themselves on the short end of society’s stick.

The overall mood was pessimistic. We were each able to list seemingly insurmountable obstacles hampering our efforts, from the bureaucratic barriers getting government assistance, to raising money, to the deficits and conditions that so many people live with day to day. The problems we face seem too complex and entrenched to really be defeated, and often we don’t know where to begin.

It was the day before the 50th annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and a lot of stories about the March on Washington had come through my various feeds. Some analyzed the event, some gauged how much of King’s dream had been realized, or how far we had to go. I began to wonder what King would make of the work my friends and I are engaged in, and how we would stack up to the activists of yore.

One thing that gets overlooked a lot these days is just how radical King’s vision was for its time, and just how hated, feared and despised he was, particularly at the time of his death. Gary Younge, writing for The Nation, gives a masterful account of how King’s life and his most famous speech have been misappropriated and whitewashed to fit into the patriotic cheerleading mode of so much American history:

‘The speech is profoundly and willfully misunderstood,’ says King’s longtime friend Vincent Harding...‘People take the parts that require the least inquiry, the least change, the least work. Our country has chosen what they consider to be the easier way to work with King.They are aware that something very powerful was connected to him, and he was connected to it. But they are not ready to really take on the kind of issues he was raising even there.’

The biggest connection is perhaps economic justice. Let’s recall that it was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King specifically addressed the economic inequality that paralleled racial segregation, and while legal segregation has been eradicated the realities of economic disparity remain stark.

This directly applies to the realities of juvenile justice in the United States, where minority kids continue to suffer from disproportionate rates of poverty, poor education, unemployment, violent death and incarceration. It’s fine to say that people need to take personal responsibility, but these kids face a stark and limiting world and no amount of ideological posturing will change that.

Younge writes, “Black unemployment is almost double that of whites; the percentage of black children living in poverty is almost triple that of whites; black male life expectancy in Washington, D.C., is lower than in the Gaza Strip; one in three black boys born in 2001 stands a lifetime risk of going to prison; more black men were disenfranchised in 2004 because they were felons than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment ostensibly secured their right to vote.”

These are scary facts. As King pointed out, the same systems that export war and violence to the rest of the world work here to foster control and domination. As my friends and I noted, the problems we face are complicated and interconnected. It is fine that we have our specialties, that we know the facts of our particular problem, but a piecemeal approach will never really lead to deep and lasting change.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow and a staunch worker against mass incarceration has been reflecting on King’s larger vision as well. She wrote on her Facebook page, “He said that nothing less than ‘a radical restructuring of society’ could possibly ensure justice and dignity for all. He was right. I am still committed to building a movement to end mass incarceration, but I will not do it with blinders on. If all we do is end mass incarceration, this movement will not have gone nearly far enough. A new system of racial and social control will be born again, all because we did not do what King demanded we do: connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism. I’m getting out of my lane. I hope you’re already out of yours.

This is terrific advice for all of us who are interested in changing the world. There is still a lot of work to be done, but as we do it we should lift our heads up from time to time and look around at the bigger scene. I may not know how we are working together, but I know we are facing the same bigger problem. Dr. King’s radicalism has been muted, his voice has been co-opted by people and institutions directly opposed to his vision, but his fire is still there in his speeches and writings, waiting to be rediscovered and reclaimed.

Even though no new figure of King’s power and moral force has come forth, we still have his words to examine for ourselves, and can still take hope from them. I end with this less familiar quote from 50 years ago, one that gives me strength to move forward. “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

Amen Dr. King, amen.