I don’t know how many cities, workplaces, and university campuses
had Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations. Don’t know how many sang and
swayed to songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
Don’t know how many times Black hands linked with White ones, and White
lips strained for Black cheeks, or Black arms groped White shoulders.
It had to happen thousands of times on January 19 all over the country,
because our nation is one committed to the process of celebrating Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.
What is the dream that we celebrate, though?
In many ways Dr. King’s dream has been hijacked by the Kuumbaya
crowd, the folks who would hum and moan cliches about the content of
our character, not the color of our skin. Dr. King’s dream has been
claimed by the people most comfortable with a vision of Dr. King
dreaming, sleeping, thinking about freedom.
The fact is, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t simply dream about
freedom, he worked to make it happen. He was shot in 1968, not because
he was dreaming but because he was working to raise the wages of
garbage workers in Memphis, who were among the lowest-paid workers in
that city. As he mobilized to fight for fair wages, King spoke not only
of race, but of economic exploitation. Somehow, it is convenient for
people to remember King for his fiery talk about the way that the races
come together, but to forget he also was passionate about the ways our
economy tears us apart.
The themes of King Day celebrations rarely speak to the economy. I
had the privilege of participating in some of the celebrations, in
Asheville, North Carolina, on January 17, and at Shippensburg
University of Pennsylvania on January 19. I got a charge out of
watching young people sing, pantomime, and speak about Dr. King’s
dream, and their elders affirming their vision with important
statements. Themes at these events were powerful and strong, using
words like vision, millennium, love, and freedom. Along with the events
I visited, I reviewed invitations of dozens of other events. Peace,
justice, freedom, wisdom, and little mention of economic justice.
Dr. King’s most enduring vision, though, was his economic vision.
He was a biting critic of a capitalist system that exploited people. In
his last address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,
titled “Where Do We Go From Here?,” King was passionate in his
criticism of the economic system as he experienced it.
“The movement must address itself to the question of restructuring
the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people
here, and one day we must ask the question, `Why are there forty
million poor people in America.’ And when you begin to ask that
question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a
broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin
to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying more and
more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We
are called, upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace.
But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars
needs restructuring. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you
begin to ask the question, `Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the
question, `Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, `Why
is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds
water?’ These are questions that need to be asked.”
King went further, guessing that a question about capitalism might be viewed as an embrace of communism.
“Don’t think you have me in a bind today,” he said. “I’m not talking about communism.”
Still, he asserted, “The problem of racism, the problem of economic
exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are
the three evils that are interrelated.”
Dr. King asked us not to put him in a bind, but in many ways we
have. We bound him with the soft brush of freedom without action talk.
We pushed his vision without embracing his views. Too many people
refuse to deal with the fact that Dr. King was a controversial
political and economic strategist, not a benign race entertainer whose
“Content of Our Character” speech came without context.
There are those who hijack the dream and put it on ads that oppose
affirmative action. There are those who sanitize the dream and place it
in a political context that ignores Dr. King’s intent. There are those
who fine-tune the dream to eliminate its controversy. They all are, in
the vernacular, “tripping.”
And we are “tripping” because we have gone along with a philosophy
that makes poverty a crime, not a national problem. We treat people who
are poor as if they messed up, not as if the economy generated unequal
and uneven results.
Dr. King, on the other hand, so abhorred poverty that he described it as an abomination.
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age,” wrote Dr.
King. “The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total,
direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.”
Instead of abolishing poverty, Americans have decided to both
demonize and Abandon the poor. We are singing, “We shall overcome
someday,” ignorant of the fact that some day never comes unless you
schedule it. We are swaying — Black and White, together — while
forgetting that Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans also have a stake
in the dream. We are providing gospel music, but no gospel action as a
backdrop to the dream.
It is much more comfortable to talk about a race-neutral dream than
to tackle economic reality. Perhaps this is why so many people who
believe in freedom sing and sway but have stopped to rest along the
way. We have put Dr. King”in a box,” and his vision is struggling to
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