Sunday, January 17, 2010

King's True Dream

In the week following Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I've made it a habit to introduce my students to a speech of his that practically no one knows about, a speech that's been almost entirely eclipsed by "I Have a Dream." Not that I have a problem with the latter speech, of course. But I feel that the obsessive focus on this speech does a disservice to King's legacy, a legacy that was far more radical than his words at the Lincoln Memorial suggest. "I Have a Dream" is a speech that, these days at least, it's hard to disagree with; who but hardcore racists could object to King's vision of interracial harmony? In that respect, the endless replaying of the "Dream" speech serves a stultifying rather than a galvanizing function in our current historical context; the speech allows us, especially with a black man in the White House, to congratulate ourselves on how far we've come, rather than to ask ourselves how far we still have to go.

And of course, we still do have a ways to go. From New Orleans to Haiti, we still live in a world of radical inequality grounded to a great extent in skin color; we still have color-coded systems of education, justice, economics, employment, residence, health, environment, and all the rest. We have a black president, yes, but also a black record that has yet to be addressed.

And we also, as I've noted in many an earlier post, have a black president who is waging (indeed, escalating) two wars. To bring this up might seem irrelevant to a discussion of King--but that's only because we've forgotten his other speech, his more radical speech, the speech in which he made clear that dismantling racism is neither sufficient nor possible without dismantling the systems of economic injustice and military imperialism on which racism is founded.

I refer to King's speech "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," which he delivered on April 4, 1967, a year before his death. In this speech, King argued that domestic racism was only one symptom of a larger social malaise of international reach, a malaise reflected both by the criminal war in Vietnam and by economic inequality at home and abroad. This speech, not surprisingly, turned many of King's former supporters against him; he was upbraided for dabbling in matters about which he knew nothing, vilified as anti-American, decried as a Communist. He was treated, in short, the way antiwar protestors are always treated: as traitors to their nation.

But his words remain as resonant today as they were over 40 years ago. Just listen to them:

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. . . . One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: 'This is not just.' It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: 'This is not just.' The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: 'This way of settling differences is not just.' This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

That's the message I take from King's dream: the radical message of revolution not only in the arena of race relations but in the way our entire global social, political, economic, military, and environmental system is structured. We are far from realizing that dream; indeed, we are arguably farther from it now than we were in King's day. But if we truly wish to honor King's legacy, we must see that legacy in its full and true dimensions and do as he says: "rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter--but beautiful--struggle for a new world."

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