When my oldest son and I were in Washington, D.C. for a vacation last fall, we passed a tour group at the Lincoln Memorial. There, we overheard the tour guide explain to his guests, “Here, a man said he had a dream. That dream came true.”
It struck me that this rather stunningly incomplete and, indeed, extraordinarily inaccurate, statement is, in fact, not that far from how many Americans perceive Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy: a sort of fuzzy, feel-good, “can’t we all just get along” dream, that, for the most part (since there aren’t many lynchings anymore, and African-Americans can use whichever public restroom they choose, and, for crying outloud, we have a black president) is a resoundingly successful piece of our country’s history. While we’re at it, much of that history counts the civil rights movement, and the gains it achieved, as a shared victory for Blacks and Whites alike, ignoring the years of violent, organized, and entrenched opposition and oppression endured by freedom fighters and ordinary folks.
I would certainly never seek to deny the tremendous progress we’ve made on racial justice, although King’s dream, as I understand it, is far from totally realized. But what I lament even more than the uncritical characterization of our society as “color-blind” is the almost complete forgetting of Dr. King’s stance on economic injustice and the violence that poverty wreaks on the lives of people of all racial backgrounds, even in this, the richest society in the world.
While not the Communist that many, including powerful figures in the U.S. government, tried to paint him, he had admittedly “anti-capitalistic feelings”, and he was as deeply troubled by unemployment, hunger, and economic desperation among African-American households and communities as by the overtly racist policies and practices to which they were subjected. He moved his entire family into a tenement in Chicago to dramatize the poor housing conditions, and, of course, he gave his life during a witness for the economic and human rights of garbage collectors in Memphis.
And that’s the part of Dr. King’s dream I’m spending the most time thinking about today, because it’s the part that we have not only failed to reach but, really, failed to keep reaching for. It’s the part that we’re all too willing to forget, to wash out of this memory we want to claim for ourselves, even though it was in the middle of this struggle that he gave his life.
This video clip features some of Dr. King’s thinking on poverty in the United States, and its evils, overlaid with video footage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, uninsured people waiting in line for health care, and other images of economic injustice in modern-day America.
This year, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, here’s to his dream.
All of it.