January 14, 2021
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a movement builder and a visionary activist who wanted to overturn the political establishment of his day. But every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day we get the same soft-focus tributes using the same “I have a dream” quotes—a safe, cuddly, greeting-card version of Dr. King that doesn’t come close to reflecting the entirety of who he was and what he believed.
Yes, we all know that he had a dream. But we rarely get a sense of what that dream was about. Dr. King made it clear, especially toward the end of his life, that he wanted to radically transform American society. He wanted to end racism, end poverty, and end war.
This MLK Day, let’s get to know Dr. King in his own words—words that remain as powerful and relevant today as they were 50 years ago.
Fighting for Racial and Economic Justice
“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
– “The Three Evils of Society,” 1967
This country has never truly reckoned with the legacy of slavery. But we see the ongoing effects of that legacy in the racist criminal justice system, the massive racial wealth gap, and the disproportionate impact of crises like environmental pollution, climate change, and COVID-19 on Black and Brown people and low-income communities. All while many of our leaders, funded by corporations and the ultra-wealthy, use race and racism to divide and silence everyday Americans. To make lasting change, we must make sure that our democracy and economy work for everyone, not just those who happen to be rich and white.
Making Good on the Promise of Freedom and Justice
“A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?...It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity."
– “The Other America,” 1967
When protestors took to the streets this summer after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, some commentators immediately labeled the largely peaceful demonstrations “riots.” But “riot” is a loaded term, and it’s most often been used by white people to demonize people of color demanding change. Next time you hear someone describing a protest as a riot, be sure to notice who’s speaking and ask yourself who benefits from and who’s harmed by the use of that racist term.
Calling Out the Connection Between Racism, Poverty, and War
“We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together. And you can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the other.”
– “Where Do We Go from Here?” 1967
Dr. King’s approval ratings began to plummet toward the end of his life as he increasingly pressed the argument that racism, poverty, and warmaking were linked and had to be addressed together to transform our society. This cost him a lot of support, especially among white people, but it’s clear today, as we look at things like how much more we spend on the military than on pandemic relief for our most vulnerable people and communities, that Dr. King was right.
Reining in Hate and Violence
“It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can't make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important also.”
– “The Other America,” 1967
Over these past four years we’ve seen hate crimes skyrocket. We’ve seen neo-Nazis lead protests in our cities. We’ve seen Black churches attacked. We’ve seen what can happen when political leaders use hate and racism to divide us. No, it may not be possible to stamp out hate and racism once and for all, but certainly a Justice Department that fights for justice will make a difference. Transforming our idea of public safety will make a difference. Ensuring that Black and Brown people are in the room when laws and policies are debated and drafted will make a difference.
Finding the Will to Make Positive Change
“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it…Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table, when man has the resources and the scientific know‐how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life?…There is no deficit in human resources, the deficit is in human will…The time has come for an all‐out world war against poverty.”
– “Where Do We Go from Here?” 1967
In this, the wealthiest nation in the world, millions of people have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Millions of people go hungry every day. Millions of families agonize over how they’ll pay their rent or buy their groceries or get their kids a winter coat. We know that low-income communities and Black and Brown people are being hit hardest by the pandemic and the economic fallout—and we know that there hasn’t been enough done to help. Is it because the government lacks the money? No. We lack the will, as much today as in 1967.
Dr. King has been revered since his assassination in 1968, but many Americans saw him as a dangerous man when he was alive. And he was, in the best possible way. He made the powerful and the politically connected uncomfortable by working tirelessly to transform this country and ensure that America lived up to its founding ideals. To those who profited, and still profit, from division and racism, those are definitely dangerous ideas.
That’s why, this and every MLK Day, we should celebrate King for who he was, in all the fullness of his character, convictions, and deeds. We have made some progress as a country, but we’re nowhere near becoming what he dreamed we could be. His words continue to ring out, calling us to do better, to be better. Let’s make sure we listen.
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