Remembering all of MLK’s dreams

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

Winter storms, power outages and freezing weather may have diverted our attention last weekend, but hopefully many readers still spent time contemplating the life and teachings of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the three-day holiday weekend honoring what would have been the venerated civil rights leader’s 95th birthday.

As King’s daughter, Bernice, reminded the world this week on her social media accounts, King’s accomplishments — and his assassination in 1968 — are not things that happened in the distant past.  

Bernice shared color photos of her father on her Be a King feed on X (formerly Twitter) on MLK Day, and said “It wasn’t that long ago.” 

She also reminded the world — in particular those who are currently fighting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and using “woke” as a derogatory term — that her father’s work was rooted in not just antiracism but also in anti-poverty, anti-militarism and anti-war positions. 

“Many folks who use ‘woke’ with contempt today probably would have hated Daddy when he was alive,” Bernice King wrote on X (@BerniceKing), Jan. 14. “He was very conscious and committed to eradicating what he called the Triple Evils of racism, poverty and militarism.”
She added in another post that  her father was not assassinated “because he wanted his children to be ‘judged by the content of their character’ but for dismantling racism, poverty and militarism.”
MLK, Bernice reminded us, “wanted corrective measures to eradicate racism, not the delusion that it doesn’t exist.” 

Bernice King is a champion for her father and a constant reminder that MLK was fighting for not just equality for Black Americans, but for the dismantling of an entire system that benefits the wealthy and privileged at the expense of those struggling to earn enough money to provide basic life necessities.

As King himself said in his 1967 “The Other America” speech at Stanford University: “It is much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee an annual income, for instance, to get rid of poverty for Negroes and all poor people. It’s much easier to integrate a bus than it is to make genuine integration a reality and quality education a reality in our schools. It’s much easier to integrate even a public park than it is to get rid of slums. And I think we are in a new era, a new phase, of the struggle, where we have moved from decency, which characterized our struggle for 10 to 12 years, to a struggle for genuine equality. And this is where we’re getting the resistance because there never was any intention to go this far.”

When we remember King’s life and his hopes for this country, we cannot just focus on one or two lines from his “I Have a Dream” speech. We have to take in and contemplate all of King’s dreams: for peace, for an end to wars, for systemic changes that would lift people out of poverty and for an educational system that would not shy away from teaching the dangers of what King called “the three evils” — racism, poverty and militarism. 

As King wrote in his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” we cannot move forward and become a united nation until we also eliminate these three evils: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” King wrote in 1967, adding that “the time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The well off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.’”

Unfortunately, 56 years after King’s assassination, we are still not there.

We are still a nation where, in 2023, a Black person was nearly three times as likely as a white person to be killed by police and where Black women are three times more likely than white women to die from a pregnancy-related cause. 

We have still not eradicated poverty. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Black folks in the U.S. not only are more likely “to live in deep poverty,” but also “experience homelessness at higher rates than Whites, largely due to long-standing historical and structural racism.” 

We also are not a nation that has embraced peace. We are still spending over $800 billion annually on our military, still preparing for war and still spending $12 billion annually to provide military aid to around 157 other countries. 

And we are still — more than half a century after King’s death — rooting out systemic racism in our public institutions, while right-wing politicians emboldened by Donald Trump try to impede this progress every step of the way. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pointed out in 2020, the Trump administration “barred federal agencies and contractors from providing employees with critical training on race and sex discrimination.” Rather than engaging with movements like Black Lives Matter, which “have shown people across the country fully acknowledge the realities of systemic racism … are still alive and well, and the need to dismantle the systems and pursue change is more important than ever,” the ACLU warned us in October 2020, “the Trump administration seeks to silence individuals and impose an alternate version of American history — one that erases the legacy of discrimination and lived experiences of Black and Brown people, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ individuals.” 

We are still a nation where, just two days after Bernice King published her tributes to her father’s legacy, one of the top Republicans in this country, Nimarata “Nikki” Haley, a woman of color whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India and who is now competing to be the Republicans’ 2024 presidential candidate, actually said she believed the U.S. — a nation born from the mass murder and displacement of Indigenous people and grown on the backs of enslaved Black people — was “never a racist country.” 

We can only wonder what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have to say to our nation today. What would he have said knowing we are a nation that followed the election of the first Black president with the election of a man dedicated to seeding violence, pitting Americans against each other and turning a blind eye to the rise of far-right extremists who, in 2017, marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, during the white supremacist  “Unite the Right” march with burning tiki torches shouting racist and antisemitic slogans?

Likely, he would be deeply disappointed but not too surprised. He also would very likely still be hopeful for a better, more equitable, more peaceful future. After all, King had more than one dream. 

As he said in his most-quoted speech, delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963: “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’ — one day right there in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

During this week of remembering King’s legacy, we must remember all of his dreams, including his anti-racism, anti-war and anti-poverty dreams that many people in power today would rather just forget.