Every year, Americans go through the January ritual of honoring Martin Luther King Jr., our secular civil rights saint and martyr. Marches and parades take place and multitudinous recitations of his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
We are more interested in idolizing Dr. King than applying the principles for which he died to contemporary American life. We have a knack for celebrating our heroes’ past deeds rather than examining how they might apply to us.
The Martin Luther King national holiday is no exception. It actually flattens the contradictions of our society that he challenged. In fact, most Americans will just see the MLK holiday as a Monday off from work. Some will honor it as a national day of service. For very few will it be an occasion to ask, “If Dr. King were still with us, what would he say about our country today?”
Dr. King was killed in Memphis, supporting city sanitation workers organizing a union for better wages and safe work conditions. Yet, little mention is made of his work in favor of unions and higher pay. Indeed, wages are still low; and opponents have leveled constant warfare against unions, diminishing their membership and undercutting a vehicle for economic rights.
Nor do people recall that Dr. King’s popularity at the time of his death was steadily shrinking because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, which saw a disproportionate number of men of color sent to another country’s war and returning in box coffins. The Johnson Administration and the mainline press viciously attacked this man of peace, the winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. What would Dr. King say today about all the wars in which America is involved, open or covert?
At the time of his assassination, Dr. King was preparing to lead a Poor People’s March on Washington that summer, calling for a radical redistribution of economic and political power. “…It is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights,” King said. The word “poverty” would not be in his vocabulary, but “economic injustice.”
This, too, drew the contempt of the power structure that would countenance a civil rights effort in the nation, but not an economic re-ordering. This is hardly in the speeches of today, commemorating his life, but ignoring one his most profound and radical challenges to American democracy. Has he failed in this?
We can also accurately predict how Dr. King would approach today’s immigrant crisis. He would adamantly oppose the wall as contrary to the nation’s values and the basic moral principles of humanity. He would open our gates to people seeking refuge from violence and economic repression; he would jail no women nor assign children to desert tent camps.
And we know what Dr. King would make of our still “separate but equal” schools, 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education, that maintain a second-class citizenship in our communities with severe economic consequences.
The prison pipelines would fare no better. Minority persons are disproportionately imprisoned for low level, non-violent crimes. People can’t get work when they parole because of stigma, assuring their remaining in poverty. The spiral continues.
To the churches, synagogues, mosques and other assemblies, Dr. King would address a second Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “where are you, brothers and sisters? You, people of faith, should be on the front lines of social change. As I said first time around, pious words in favor of slow change are not enough and are contrary to what you stand for.”
Actually, Dr. King would want each of us on the front lines. His message today, I am sure, would be something like, “Forget about singing my praises. Get to work. Honor me by rolling up your sleeves and doing the justice work I believed in. The people need you.”
James Harrington, a human rights lawyer, is founder and director emeritus of the Texas Civil Rights Project. He writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.