I don’t have anything terribly original to offer this King Day about my hero’s historical significance. He held up a mirror to America and asked us all to live up to our own professed civic and religious values. For that he was feared and despised in the most “patriotic” and “Christian” part of the country—or at least among a majority of the white citizens of his home region—and was probably the most inevitable martyr of the twentieth century.
King matters today because so many Americans still want to deny the existence of injustice and inequality, and make the poor and the powerless offenders against the pride and self-satisfaction of the privileged. That these same people sometimes perversely pretend to be King’s disciples, suggesting he would today be in a rapture of color-blindness that would keep him from seeing anything other than a blessed land of opportunity, is all the more reason we need a day set aside each year to remembering what he actually represented. And it wasn’t some abstract, negative idea of “freedom” or “equality” that accepted mass unemployment or low wages as the product of a divinely instituted marketplace. Here’s an excerpt from a 1965 sermon that represented a transition point in King’s ministry that would eventually produce the Poor People’s Campaign:
About two years ago now, I stood with many of you who stood there in person and all of you who were there in spirit before the Lincoln Monument in Washington. As I came to the end of my speech there, I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare; I’ve seen it shattered. I saw it shattered one night on Highway 80 in Alabama when Mrs. Viola Liuzzo was shot down. I had a nightmare and saw my dream shattered one night in Marion, Alabama, when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot down. I saw my dream shattered one night in Selma when Reverend Reeb was clubbed to the ground by a vicious racist and later died. And oh, I continue to see it shattered as I walk through the Harlems of our nation and see sometimes ten and fifteen Negroes trying to live in one or two rooms. I’ve been down to the Delta of Mississippi since then, and I’ve seen my dream shattered as I met hundreds of people who didn’t earn more than six or seven hundred dollars a [year]. I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve walked the streets of Chicago and seen Negroes, young men and women, with a sense of utter hopelessness because they can’t find any jobs. And they see life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. And not only Negroes at this point. I’ve seen my dream shattered because I’ve been through Appalachia, and I’ve seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in poverty.
Martin Luther King not only held up a mirror to America to acknowledge its deeds did not match its stated ideals; he also made Americans see the consequences of that hypocrisy in unjustly blighted lives, and feel shame in the presence of the unquenchable dignity of the hard-working poor.
We need more of that today.
UPDATE: ThinkProgress’ Igor Volsky has a good summary of Dr. King’s less-known radical words and actions that are often obscured in the effort to keep his legacy safely noncontroversial.
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