Although we have several months to go before we, once again, turn to the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a spirit of remembrance and celebration, we’ve decided to post this timely essay, penned by Richard Cammarieri, as a means of reflection on and critique of our times and those who attempt to hijack King’s vision of social justice. As we trek forward in Newark let us examine our ideologies and practices by way a rubric of justice, equity, uplift and harmony.
Once again we are in the midst of another January filled with programs and celebrations that lay claim to honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately many – not all certainly – but far too many of these observances dishonor Dr. King’s memory by trying to transform his life into a kind of Hallmark Card with simpleminded platitudes about ‘brotherhood’ and ‘kindness’ or ‘compassion’. And while these things informed the essence of Dr. King’s mission (after all he did say “We must all live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”) it is morally wrong and historically wrong to reduce him to these vague virtues and ignore the concrete challenge with which he confronted our society.
His real legacy, the real action he took in life to challenge the profoundly ingrained elements of racism, of economic injustice for all people, of imperialism and militarism as practiced by the United States is corrupted by those who simply want to reduce him to a sanitized, safe symbol of ‘brotherhood’ and ‘kindness’; those who only want to refer to Dr. King’s “dream” as though he was just a dreamer and not, using his words a “drum major” for fundamental social change.
The fact is many of the people and institutions that claim to honor Dr. King today would have had nothing to do with him when he was alive. Many of the institutions honoring him would fail the scrutiny of his eye for social justice were he still alive. The fact is many of those pretending to honor Dr. King know little more about his critical social analysis than the slogan “I have a dream.”
For those people who seem to profit in more ways than one off of that slogan, I would ask if they have read the entire speech he gave that 28th day of August 1963? Did they understand the stinging indictment of American hypocrisy he put forth in the image of America having “defaulted” on the “promissory note” of equality promised by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
Do people understand that Dr. King lived five long years after that speech? He made many other speeches that clearly outlined the social issues and solutions our society should have addressed. Have those people whose notion of Dr. King begins and ends with “I have a dream” even read any of his speeches, especially those written over the last years of his life and especially his last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
And if you think his tone did not change from 1963 to 1968 then just consider one example in two references to Abraham Lincoln. In the first paragraph of his “I Have a Dream” speech he refers to Lincoln as “a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” Five years later in his last speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” given the night before he was murdered he refers to watching “a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.”
There are many essential things Dr. King said that one probably will not hear at most Dr. King “lite” ceremonies. In ‘Beyond Vietnam’ a speech he gave on April 4, 1967 he talked about the need “to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history” and later states that “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.” This kind of thing would have him branded un-American today and probably exposed to arrest under some Patriot Act clause.
He called for our nation to “undergo a radical revolution of values” that we must ‘shift from a thing-oriented society to a people oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” And later, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” This theme of racial injustice, economic exploitation through unregulated capitalism and militarism reflected his own axis of evil, a message he would return to consistently over the last year of his life.
In his speech “Where Do We Go from Here? On August 16th, 1967 he called for a national full employment policy. He called for a “guaranteed annual income” and provided an economic rationale to support it. He questioned capitalism. “Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. I’m simply saying that more and more we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.” And that “…the problem of racism the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
In “The Drum Major Instinct” on February 4th, 1968 he noted the interracial and class issues of economic exploitation. He talked about speaking with white wardens in the Birmingham jail who objected so strongly to civil rights and integration and intermarriage but when talk turned to the subject of money he said:
“And when those brothers (the white police) told me how much they were earning, I said, ‘Now you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes.’ And I said, ‘You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white…”
He even raised the notion of reparations for Black people in “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” on March 31, 1968. He takes on what is still a popular theme of neo-conservatives, including many Black neo-cons when he cites “…another myth that still gets around: it is the over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty … he must do it all by himself… must lift himself by his own bootstraps. They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the Black man’s color a stigma. But beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery two-hundred and forty-four years.”
He then makes a very cogent economic argument comparing the lack of resources provided Black people freed from slavery with the economic subsidies provided European immigrants through land grants, training and loans.
In Dr. King’s final book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? he continues and expands upon many of these themes, especially economic justice. He notes the “need for a radical restructuring of American society…For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die a new set of values must be born.” He called for affirmative action in establishing proportional job set-asides. He called for a direct attack on poverty by providing a guaranteed annual income as noted in an earlier speech and called for government subsidies for businesses to employ people of limited training and education.
These are the words and ideas of Dr. King. These are the things that should be highlighted and discussed by those who say they want to honor him. We should read him and study him. We should teach our children about his ideas for social transformation and not just reduce his memory to a competition for ‘acts of kindness’.
We should truly honor his memory by making his ideals real today through our actions and work to confront and challenge that which is unjust in our society. Every aspect of our society from education, employment, housing, health, law enforcement, and criminal justice just to name some major areas, reflects in various measures that fact that racism, discrimination, economic exploitation and militarism still infects our society locally and nationally. And it is our charge as responsible, moral beings to help expose and cleanse these wounds whenever and however we can – protesting as best suits our convictions.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
About the author:
He was born, raised and remains a lifelong resident of Newark with a long family history in the city that began with the immigration of his maternal grandfather from Southern Italy in 1899. He has had extensive experience in Newark grassroots community organizing and neighborhood policy development. He is a published poet and has had featured readings in Newark, surrounding towns and in various venues in New York City and he has served as the poetry editor for the Newark Arts Council Newsletter. He graduated from Rutgers University Newark with a Bachelors Degree in English.