In light of recent events, I’m re-upping one of our past think pieces on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As much as we’d like to think of how much progress we made, America’s current crisis of crises shows how much more we must do to tear down the long-standing inequities that stand in the way of Dr. King’s dream being fulfilled.
FYI, I originally posted this here on January 18, 2019. Keep reading for a special postscript at the end.
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. […] I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address on April 3, 1968
We can scour through Dr. King’s many writings for plenty of truly awesome quotes, but let’s remember the reason why he wrote all those books, letters, and speeches in the first place. He spent his early years working to end the worst of Jim Crow (de jure) segregation through nonviolent resistance, then expanded his focus during his later years to broader themes of racial and economic justice.
During his life, Dr. King was actually condemned by many “mainstream” politicians and pundits for his opposition to the Vietnam War and his leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign. In fact, his final organizing trip was to Memphis to publicly throw his support behind the African-American city sanitation workers who were demanding equal pay and better working conditions.
We sometimes hear various snippets of Dr. King’s final “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Address on the day before his assassination, but we must keep in mind the overarching message of going beyond de jure segregation in tackling the de facto segregation that exists in the forms of institutionalized racism and systemic poverty.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Strength to Love, 1963
These days, it’s easy for us to comfort ourselves with the thought that Dr. King achieved his dream of justice with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s much harder to confront the much more complicated reality of Jim Crow-style de jure segregation being replaced by a new de facto segregation that’s hidden in our criminal justice system, our education system, the fine print of statistics on economic inequality, and even the still incomplete non-discrimination laws that allow for all sorts of discrimination against women, communities of color, and LGBTQ+ Americans.
Even now, we’re witnessing this enduring inequality with the current (partial federal) government shutdown. While Americans are starting to notice that certain 1950’s-60’s civil rights movement monuments will be closed this weekend due to the shutdown, the impact stretches much further than that. Whether it’s the low-wage contractors who have already been going without pay to the working poor families who may soon lose SNAP benefits, we can see who’s disproportionately being hit by President Donald Trump’s shutdown shitshow. And considering the shutdown is the direct result of Trump’s insistence on a border wall to effectively fortify his discriminatory “zero tolerance” anti-immigrant regime, that adds an additional layer to the institutionalized discrimination that continues to plague our country.
So as we remember Dr. King and his legacy, it’s critical that we remember his full legacy… And that there’s still far more for us to do to truly honor his legacy. As Dr. King wrote himself in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Postscript: We still
Around 10 am this morning I heard some pops, saw this fire burning underneath 395 outside of the Capitol South Whole Foods. Our homeless neighbors live under there. Praying no one was in the vicinity when the fire started. Authorities/fire department on scene @WTOP @PoPville pic.twitter.com/DWzAMloNAP
— Anna Mahalak (@annamarieDC) January 18, 2021
One piece of paper I’ve always kept on my desk is this polling from the 1960s.
Too many people view the Civil Rights Movement as inevitable or popular, when in fact it was absolutely not.
— Jack Miller (@politicalmiller) January 18, 2021
Sadly, it took the events of the last few months to get more Americans, especially those “very serious people” on top of most political and media food chains, to start to admit that we have a hell of a lot more work to do to fulfill Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. After outgoing President Donald Trump and his allies sought to disenfranchise voters of color, a number of Democratic politicians responded to Trump’s threats by bad-mouthing Black Lives Matter activists who use slogans like “Defund the Police“, Trump tried a coup d’etat to stay in power following his election loss, and Democrats continued to debate each other over how to utilize the power they just won, the same “very serious people” now indulge the calls for “unity and healing” from the very forces who have unleashed and exacerbated this crisis we’re living through.
There can be no unity or healing without justice. After all, how anyone heal when people are still hurting? How can there be any unity when known liars continue to spew false propaganda with little or no consequences? If our nation’s elected leaders truly want to celebrate Dr. King and his legacy, they can set aside the quote meme tweets and take real action to rebuild a more just America.
Cover photo provided by the Library of Congress, and made available by Wikimedia.