This January 16, we will be celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who literally gave his life in the struggle for the rights of all people. It’s been nearly 44 years since he was gunned down at the Loraine Motel in Memphis; and 49 since he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, calling for a colorblind America.
When people think of King, the image that most comes to mind is of a nonviolent individual who returned love for hate. While that is true, King was also an angry revolutionary, who railed against injustice wherever it was found, from the streets of Montgomery, Alabama to the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. In his speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” King said, “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin ... the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
This side of King upset and angered many, including some in his own movement, who felt that he should avoid making political statements about issues unconnected with the rights of blacks. But, King saw the connections that these unimaginative souls failed to see. To him, the rights of every individual, regardless of color or location, were important to the rights of all. Failure to accord rights to peasants in rural Vietnam, failure to address the corrosive effect of persistent poverty in northern urban areas, was just as detrimental to the health of our nation as the lynching and disenfranchisement of southern blacks.
The question that should be foremost in our minds as we commemorate this occasion in 2012: How well have we done in living up to Dr. King’s legacy and challenge? What have we done, a officials or private citizens, to create the colorblind society he dreamed of, the society where little black boys and girls can stand hand in hand with little white boys and girls and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last.”
As I look around, I come to the inescapable conclusion that we’ve left that dream in limbo. Greed has sent the economy into a tailspin, and the political environment has become so corrosive one needs to wear a protective suit to enter it. Rather than welcoming ‘others,’ anti-immigration rhetoric and legislation seems to be the order of the day. King’s dream is in danger of becoming one long nightmare unless we all commit to wake up and do something about it.