After a long, hard fought struggle, it is certainly wonderful to have an annual holiday celebrating the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It offers an opportunity for the entire nation to reflect on the vision, trials, tribulations and triumphs of one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known. However, each year I worry that the Holiday will become a kind of touchy/feely “Kumbaya” occasion where the emphasis is on “can we all get along” rather than a focus on social justice and social change. Almost by nature, state institutions have little interest in uplifting the ideas of heroes and heroines that pose a threat to the status-quo. And, the “mainstream media” has never been a major conveyor of messages of social change. Therefore, now that he is “safely dead,” selected sections of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech -- the call to judge people based on the “content of their character” not skin color and the hope that one day little Black boys and girls and White boys and girls, all of us, will be able to be as one in America – have become like the official anthem for the MLK Holiday.
When most Americans think of Martin Luther King, what immediately comes to mind are those selected passages from one of the most eloquent and inspiring orations in the history of this nation. The problem is that this selective view of Dr. King dilutes his vision as a committed reformer on a mission to achieve a “more perfect union” utilizing non-violent resistance as his strategy of choice. Dr. King was obviously a proponent of “the beloved community” where human beings of all races, ethnicities, cultures and religions could live in harmony and peace. However, within a society where racism and poverty plagued millions of people, the path to this panacea was through militantly confronting racial, social and economic injustice. Stripping this fundamental dimension of his vision and mission is to create a kind of “milk toast” Martin which excludes the boycotts, marches, protests and civil disobedience he employed to challenge injustice in this land; a Martin so non-threatening that even rightwing reactionaries like Glenn Beck can embrace despite the fact that his vision of America is diametrically opposed to much of what Dr. King advocated.
While the U.S. is slowly emerging from a “Great Recession” occasioned by the reckless behavior of Wall Street financial institutions, like most MLK Holidays, this year’s commemoration was mostly marked by ceremonies, parades and people engaged in worthy service projects in honor of the mild mannered Martin. Given King’s vision/mission as a reformer, one would have thought that there might have been teach-ins across the nation analyzing the implications of his teachings for crafting public policy to overcome the Great Recession and chart a path toward a more wholesome society. This kind of analysis is particularly important because of the fierce ideological struggle between conservatives and liberal/progressives over the direction of this country in the wake of the Great Recession. For example, Glenn Beck has launched a relentless campaign against City College of New York Distinguished Professor Frances Fox-Piven who proposed a guaranteed annual income in the 60s. Beck and the rightwing see such proposals as part of a sinister plot to “overthrow” the capitalist system and establish socialism. If Beck had bothered to study Martin Luther King’s program for change instead of blithely attempting to peddle a “milk toast” version of him to his followers, he would have discovered that a guaranteed annual income was a basic tenet of King’s platform.
Dr. Martin Luther King was not some accommodationist blandly urging Americans to just get along. He was a liberal-progressive reformer who saw major flaws that must be corrected in America’s capitalist political-economy. In his seldom quoted speech at the Riverside Church in New York in 1967, where he expressed his opposition to the war in Vietnam, King the social reformer proclaimed: “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing oriented’ society to a ‘person oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” How appropriate does this message seem today when the U.S. is engaged in two ill advised, resource draining wars abroad and the profiteers on Wall Street have nearly destroyed the economy of this country and the world. How well does this message resonate when inequality, the gap between rich and poor, is the worst since the 1930’s. The New York City Coalition against Hunger recently cited data indicating that there are now fifty-seven (57) billionaires in the Big Apple whose combined annual income of $232 billion is greater than that of 13 million minimum wage workers. Those at the commanding heights of capital and finance in this country are perfectly willing to “get along” so long as their kind of greed-driven, unbridled capitalism goes untouched.
It is particularly at moments of crisis when there is such an intense debate about the direction of the nation that the progressive movement should be aggressively utilizing the vision of Martin Luther King the social reformer as a framework to educate the American people about the urgent need to maintain and expand the “culture of rights” social movements have achieved through generations of struggle, e.g., women’s suffrage, the right to organize and maintain unions, workers compensation, the minimum wage, social security, Medicare, consumer protection, environmental protection and civil rights for Blacks and other people of color. At the end of his life Martin Luther King was planning a “Poor People’s Campaign” to substantially enhance the culture of rights for workers, the middle class and poor people by advancing the concept of an Economic Bill of Rights which would provide every American with a guaranteed annual income, housing, health care and a quality education. King was proposing radical reforms rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Indeed, in the Riverside Church Speech he declared: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Needless to say, we have yet to come close to realizing the reforms King was proposing when he was gunned down on a balcony in Memphis. In fact, with the “white backlash he predicted, coupled with the rise to prominence of conservatism, there has been a concerted effort to turn back the clock on civil rights and to undermine the culture of rights for workers, the middle class and poor people. This onslaught was never more evident than in the current period when the Tea Party Patriots and other rabid conservatives are hell bent on painting any proposal for an expansion of the culture of rights, e.g., health care reform, as socialist. And, frankly by clever use of propaganda, fear mongering and outright lies; the reactionaries on the right have persuaded a sizeable segment of the public to act against their own class interest. Progressives have yet to mount an effective offensive to counter the machinations of the conservatives. One of the most positive ways to combat the rise of the right, with its restrictive, property and profit oriented vision of America, is to preserve and present the vision of Martin Luther King, the social reformer. The best way to honor King’s memory is to remind Americans what he stood for and work to translate his ideas into policies and practices that will “restructure the edifice” which is producing obscene levels of wealth and prosperity for a few and misery and a lack of fulfillment for so many in the United States.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.