Dr. Martin Luther King Would See More Work To Do
In this time of remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, we should remember him not as a celebrity but, as he called himself, as a drum major for justice. Dr. King had a dream, but he was much more than a dreamer. He helped transform America, yet he never held a public office nor amassed a great fortune. He was a bold leader, a committed organizer — and he wasn’t easy. He forced America to look at hard truths, at grim realities that most preferred not to face.
Many people wonder how Dr. King would feel today. The best measure is to look back to what he said and did. He surely would have been pleased at the progress that has been made, the end of legal apartheid. He’d see the integrated football and basketball teams, and watch as people cheer the color of the team uniform, not the color of the players’ skin, and be cheered. The freedom agenda that he helped to marshal has made great progress.
At the same time, Dr. King would surely tell us that the dream is still under attack. Amid islands of hope, he would see oceans of despair. He’d be amused by March Madness, but troubled by graduation sadness. A leader deeply committed to nonviolence, he would be appalled by an America marked by the violence of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, one of 100,000 injured in gun violence every year, and the deaths of the innocents, a handful of the 32,000 killed each year. He would see the reaction — the sale of even more guns — as a sign of our moral incapacity.
Dr. King called for a true revolution of values, understanding that the moral would look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.” And, sadly, he would see more people in poverty today than in his years, and far more concentration of wealth among the few.
Dr. King realized that in wealthy America, unemployment is both cruel and unnecessary: There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum and livable income for every American family.” He argued not for welfare, but for work: “We must develop a federal program of public works, retraining and jobs for all — so that none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened.” He would not be satisfied with a Congress that has failed to act while long-term unemployment hits record levels, and more than 20 million Americans are in need of full-time jobs.
Dr. King publicly opposed the war in Vietnam, understanding that the war on poverty at home was being lost in the jungles overseas. He would be pleased that Americans are overwhelmingly committed to defending Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But he would be alarmed by the cuts now envisioned in vital programs, even as we squander an estimated $3 trillion on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Congress,” he reported, appropriates military funds with alacrity and generosity. It appropriates poverty funds with miserliness and grudging reluctance. The government is emotionally committed to war. It is emotionally hostile to the needs of the poor.” And so he would find it so to this day.
So Dr. King would recognize the progress that has been made — but he would not be dancing, he would be organizing. “Change,” he taught, “does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” And he would indict us for our silence in the face of current conditions: “The greatest tragedy of this period of social transition,” he argued, is “not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
To honor his memory, let us end the silence.