I spent Thursday with my eight-year-old son, wandering through the Smithsonian American History and Air & Space museums. From the war for independence to the Apollo moon landing, it was a tour through some of the most audacious of American dreams, dared and realized. As we walked along the mall that morning, several times people stopped us and asked for directions to the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. I pointed them in the right direction. That afternoon, we headed toward the memorial ourselves.
The memorial was to be dedicated on the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Hurricane Irene forced a postponement. Yet, as I stood looking at the Memorial, I wondered what Dr. King would say and what he would do if he somehow materialized and looked upon his 30-foot tall granite likeness, and then turned and looked at how far we have gone towards that dream since he died — our how far we have strayed from it. Would his first concerned be violence and divisiveness of our political rhetoric? Would he be concerned about racism so common that we’re now asked not to call it racism at all anymore?
No. He would be concerned, deeply so, that the problems he died fighting to correct have worsened since his death. Certainly King would denounce violent acts and violent rhetoric, but he would not fail to underscore the connection to economic violence all around us.
It’s easy to forget, but some remember exactly what Dr. King was fighting for when he died. It’s easy to forget that what we abbreviate as “The March on Washington,” was called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” It’s easy to forget that six months before he died, King began organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which was focused on jobs, income and housing. It’s easy to forget that when he was assassinated, King was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers’ union. King envisioned a broader phase of the civil rights movement, that put racial injustice in the context of economic justice.
Dr. King would jolt African-Americans out of the “paradox of hope” that leads us to believe we’re faring better than we are.
When Barack Obama was pondering a run for the presidency Michelle asked him what he thought he could accomplish. He replied,“The day I take the oath of office, the world will look at us differently. And millions of kids across this country will look at themselves differently. That alone is something.” His victory was indeed something. The world certainly looked at America differently, though this had as much to do with who he wasn’t—George W. Bush—as what he was, black, among other things.
Polls show that African-Americans indeed look at themselves differently. A January 2010 Pew survey revealed huge optimism. The percentage of black Americans who thought blacks were better off than they were five years before had almost doubled since 2007. There were also significant increases in the percentages who believed the standard-of-living gap between whites and blacks was decreasing.
But for all the ways black America has felt better about itself and looked better to others, it has not actually fared better. In fact, it has been doing worse. The economic gap between black and white has grown since Obama took power. Under his tenure black unemployment, poverty and foreclosures are at their highest levels for at least a decade.
Millions of black kids may well aspire to the presidency now that a black man is in the White House. But such a trajectory is less likely for them now than it was under Bush. Herein lies what is at best a paradox and at worst a contradiction within Obama’s core base of support. The very group most likely to support him—black Americans—is the same group that is doing worse under him.
King would hear white Americans’ concerns with compassion, not condescension, because he would understand that this economy has done violence to middle- and working-class whites. Just as he understood that segregation was harmful to whites as well as blacks, King would understand that today’s economic inequality harms both black and white. He’d understand that the anger in today’s political rhetoric, as then, comes from insecurity and fear about changing times and what it means their communities and families. King would know that today’s economic disparities won’t change unless there’s an economic recovery that includes everyone.
Dr. King’s words, invoked during President Obama’s inauguration, suggest what he would call us to remember and how he would challenge us today.
“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good checkup at the Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand our boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.
“The ultimate measure of a man or woman is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother or sister to a higher and more noble life.”
But he would not stop there.
- Dr. King would be concerned that an already slow economic recovery is leaving black Americans behind.
- King concerned about the epidemic of black unemployment — that black unemployment is at 16.2%, compared to 9.2% for the general population, 17.5% for black men, and 41% for black youth.
- King would be outraged that one in three black children lives in poverty.
- King would be troubled that black households now have 20 times less wealth than white households.
- King be concerned about the backward mobility happening in the African American communities, as middle class families quickly lose ground in this recession — losing hard won gains, in a fraction of the time it too achieve them.
- King would denounce the attacks on public workers that are hitting blacks and women the hardest.
- King would stand with public workers in Wisconsin, who now have to choose between health insurance and feeding their children.
- Dr. King would be outraged that the “welfare reform” of the 1990s is leaving more people in poverty today.
- Dr. King would scorn a recovery where CEO pay soars 27 percent, while virtually no jobs are created.
- King would denounce the GOP’s exploitation of racial and economic anxiety, and denounce Democrats just as loudly for failing to offer much of value to working-class whites.
- King would stand today where he stood then: with working families who are struggling in this recession, losing ground while our government seems content to let it happen.
- Dr. King would deliver the full-throated challenge to the status quo that many Americans are longing to hear.
As Rev. Jesse Jack wrote, Dr. King was not an idle dreamer. He would remind us that he practiced nonviolence — not surrender. He would remind us that he did not rest. He would tell us not to expect “transformational leaders” to deliver the change we hope for. He would remind us that the change we celebrate today was the result of the transformational movement that he and others led. He might even repeat these worse from his last Sunday sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”:
Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.
One of my favorite episodes of one of my favorite shows is “Return of the King,” from the first season of “The Boondocks,” in which MLK — in the shows “alternate history” — awakens from the coma caused by the gunshot that almost killed him, observes that state of black America and America itself, and expresses his dismay with trademark eloquence. I imagine that today King would be just as dismayed today, and wonder if — as we erect memorials and carve his words into stone — we really paid attention to what he said, let alone understood what he meant.
If King were to arrive at the dedication of his own memorial to find his dream deferred and undefended, he would almost certainly lead those gathered in a march away from it, and to the very steps of the Capitol to demand that our government — not “the government,” which sounds like it belongs to someone else, as it’s only a few letters short of being “their government” — take action. And he would exhort us not to go back home, sit down, and wait for those demands to be met. He would tell us to go home and get busy helping those in need, and organizing to speak in an ever louder voice until our government hears us. He would tell us to work until we become a movement impossible to ignore.