Don’t rest until King’s entire dream is realized
By DAWUD WALID
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. many Americans remember is a homogenized version of him that virtually ignores his stance against militarism and his struggle against the exploitation of workers.
King has come to symbolize America’s evolution toward a more racially just society. Indeed, King’s involvement in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, his historic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, and his advocacy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were monumental milestones in our country’s struggle toward freedom, justice and equality. I am a direct beneficiary of his work, being the son of a parent who grew up in the Jim Crow South and attended segregated schools while fearing the Ku Klux Klan.
However, there seems to be a gap in our collective consciousness about King’s holistic outlook toward human rights and justice. Cornel West, a preeminent American scholar and civil rights activist, has described much of the current public discourse about the late civil rights leader as the “Santa Claus-ification” of King.
King was not a popular man during his era. He was loathed not only by bigots, but in many circles of the federal government and corporate America. Even before then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized the FBI to wiretap King, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover monitored King and spread misinformation that the Baptist pastor was a godless “communist.” In fact, Hoover went so far in government documents as to dub King as “the most dangerous man in America.”
King was seen as a threat not because he thought blacks should be able to dine next to whites or attend the same schools, but because he challenged growing American militarism in Vietnam and its negative effects on poor people, both in loss of life and in the diversion of funds that might otherwise have been used to support social programs.
The nonviolent King even proclaimed, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly against the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
King’s tenacious criticism of the conflict in Vietnam, the war’s disproportionate impact on poor people, and the growing disparity between the living standards of corporate executives and blue-collar workers has relevance in today’s sociopolitical discourse.
If King were alive today, I am confident he would criticize the cutting of social programs and the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq after an invasion prompted by fallacious reasons. If Dr. King were here with us, I am confident he would be angered to learn that the Department of Defense and the FBI are once again intrusively monitoring Americans under the guise of fighting terrorism, much as they once monitored him. And I know he would be at the front lines with those calling for just immigration reform.
King should not be seen as a mythical figure like Santa Claus, who makes us feel warm and fuzzy. We have come a long way as a nation, but King’s full dream has yet to come true.
Let us work toward fulfilling the entirety of that dream, not just by having superficial discussions about how we are growing into a “post-racial society,” but by also working to secure all the human rights, including the right to obtain economic dignity, that King strove for.
Dawud Walid is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan Chapter.