Martin’s Dream of Equality and Justice

MLKDayby UC Newsroom

When Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 and uttered the words “I have a dream,” he spoke to a nation mired in bitter struggles over civil rights and social and economic injustice.

That speech, and his exhortation for a society that would judge his children not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” has become the most common representation of King as a symbol of the fight for racial equality. But, as scholars at UC Santa Barbara point out, to distinguish him by those words alone is to exclude his work as a human rights activist on a global scale and to overlook some of his greatest accomplishments.

A Revolution of Values

“Martin Luther King is America’s most widely recognized but least understood historical figure,” noted George Lipsitz, UCSB professor of black studies. “The gap between who Dr. King was and how he is remembered may be the widest in history.

“We know one sentence by Dr. King — of his wanting his children to be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin,” Lipsitz continued, “but we don’t know the Dr. King who, three years later, told a crowd in Jackson, Mississippi, that ‘my dream has turned into a nightmare.’ Who would have thought the best way to suppress understanding of Dr. King would be to constantly quote one sentence of his and leave out the other 39 years of his thinking and acting, talking and preaching?”

We don’t know the Dr. King who, that same summer of 1966, took his crusade to the streets and suburbs of Chicago where he argued that fair housing — desegregating American neighborhoods — was the most important call of the civil rights movement, Lipsitz went on. And we forget that he was met with bricks and bottles. King was condemned even by many of his former allies for stirring up a neighborhood rather than extending justice to a people who had been unfairly kept out of housing they could afford to rent or buy.

“What my students and I always find most interesting is that in the very weeks before he was killed, Dr. King was marching side by side with sanitation workers in Memphis, and he said it’s a crime for people to live in an affluent country and make poverty wages,” Lipsitz said. “So to think that King was only about desegregating the U.S. that existed is not at all true. He was a prophetic voice who thought that on issues of the economy, education and war and peace, the country was headed in the wrong direction. And it needed what he called ‘a revolution of values.’”

A Transformative Figure

“Martin Luther King is the single most transformative American of the 20th century,” said Jeffrey Stewart, chair and professor of black studies at UCSB. “Probably the only person who comes close to that is Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the sense that the world after him was completely different from the world before him.

“FDR changed our understanding of the obligation of the government to its people,” Stewart continued, “and I think Martin Luther King changed our understanding of the obligation of America to African-Americans. The world we live in now is the world created by Martin Luther King, and it’s so pervasive that we don’t know it.”

According to Stewart, King also brought a level of reconciliation between whites and blacks — although not without its continuing challenges — and created the possibility for whites to acknowledge the wrongs done to blacks over the course of American history and to commit themselves to a better way of being. “Other people are very important as well — Malcolm X and Ella Baker were very much a part of that, too — but King had a large tent, so to speak,” Stewart said.  “A lot of people who were standing on the sidelines and perhaps didn’t know where or how they entered into the discussion of civil rights were given permission by King to join in a movement for social justice that they might not have felt was open to them.”

A key to King’s success was his ability to mobilize people in great numbers. He was a gifted strategist who motivated people to fight injustice. “If you think about how to address inequality, the dimension that’s missing today is the dimension he brought — mass mobilization,” noted Melvin Oliver, executive dean of the College of Letters & Science at UCSB. “We thought we had it with the anti-Wall Street movement, but we didn’t. And no matter how President Obama positions himself, he can’t get traction on this issue unless there’s mass mobilization behind it. That’s where King’s legacy informs what we should be thinking about and doing now.”

Major historical figures — Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela, for example — almost transcend reality and are reinterpreted over time, and King is no exception. “His meaning in American life is subject to debate, and sometimes that debate is subtle, and other times it’s very vociferous and pointed,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, the MacArthur Foundation Chair in History at UCSB and director of the campus’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy. “I think there are two ways people are arguing about King and presenting him today, and they both have a lot of truth about them, but the emphasis is different.”

In one view, conservatives perceive King purely as a civil rights leader who advocated a colorblind society in which everyone is equal. In that way, they interpret his “I Have a Dream” speech as an argument opposing affirmative action. If people should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, they argue, then affirmative action is a form of discrimination because it is, after all, based on skin color.

“The other view, which most historians adopt,” Lichtenstein said, “is that King is very much part of a social democratic, Rooseveltian, New Deal movement. The civil rights movement was a completion and fulfillment of some of the impulses that came out of the New Deal, the labor movement and a multicultural labor movement.”

Radical and Principled Thinker

Said Alice O’Connor, UCSB professor of history: “The thing historians have done most to revise this sort of popularized vision of King as a hero of civil rights, voting rights, et cetera, has been to emphasize his longstanding commitment to economic as well as political democracy.

“At the same time,” O’Connor continued, “historians have looked back on King’s writings to see a longstanding commitment to a more social democratic vision of what the movement should aspire to, as opposed to a narrower emphasis on what the movement is about — achieving voting rights and abolishing Jim Crow segregation. The revised vision is that it was about a much more radical set of demands that pushed toward economic rights as well as political and civil rights.”

As King continued to push the movement forward, the focus of his advocacy shifted to a more global view. Historians argue that this more radical take on the world was not new to King, but demonstrated his willingness — his need — to voice his opposition to issues such as the Vietnam War.

“Again, that’s the more radical King,” said O’Connor. “One could argue that his feelings about the war — and war in general — were there all along. In terms of strategizing where the movement should go, he became increasingly more willing to speak out in a very forthright way, and earlier than a lot of other people, to say we cannot support this war; it is completely unjust in terms of everything the civil rights movement stands for.

“In that posture, he’s very much identifying in a more overt way with the global struggle,” O’Connor continued. “His rootedness in Ghandian thought was not just about embracing the concept of nonviolence, it was part of a larger vision of solidarity with people who were racially and economically oppressed around the world. So if he was translating that into an increasingly overt opposition to the war, it wasn’t something he suddenly embraced in a turn against the war. It was bringing out and cultivating elements of his thought that had been there all along.”

King is a challenging figure in many ways, according to Lipsitz, because he was both a radical thinker and a principled one. “He wasn’t just looking for an America with a few of its racial obstacles removed,” Lipsitz said. “He was looking for an America that would give people opportunities and chances. He was looking for an America where love had real meaning and was not just a slogan. And it’s hard for us to comprehend that, and hard for us to hear those words that he spoke about economic inequality, about war and peace, about housing segregation, about school and educational inequality.

“Those are vexing problems, and he has a lot to say about them,” he continued. “But they’re not things we seem capable of hearing.”

Poor People’s Campaign

In 1968, King continued his commitment to economic justice by organizing a movement called the Poor People’s Campaign. Supported by the Southern Christian Leadership Congress, the movement demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans of all races. “The Poor People’s Campaign is really important to understanding what King was all about,” said O’Connor.

The Poor People’s Campaign followed upon King’s experiences of massive resistance in cities like Chicago, and national alarm over uprisings in Detroit and Newark, as well as his unwavering support of the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. The strike was part of a militant labor movement at the time, and showed King increasingly redefining the civil rights movement as one for economic justice. The Poor People’s Campaign was built around the issues of poverty, labor exploitation, economic inequality and unbalanced wealth distribution to form a cross-race coalition of people who were economically oppressed. It included whites, blacks, Chicanos and Latinos and Native Americans.

“They used those issues to organize another March on Washington — the Poor People’s March on Washington,” said O’Connor. “We’re going to bring an agenda that will realize an economic bill of rights for poor people of all colors, one that recognizes that we are mutually oppressed by economic exploitation. That was the plan. But King was assassinated even as serious organizing was just getting underway.”

With King gone, debate began within the movement, particularly within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, about whether to proceed. The decision was made to continue, and with figures such as Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson in the lead, the Poor People’s March on Washington took place a little more than a month after King’s death.

“It was quite amazing,” O’Connor said. “People came from all over the country, often in Greyhound buses, cars and caravans. It was an impressive turnout of people. As they approached Washington, they staged a very theatrical approach and literally arrived on the Mall in something resembling a mule train.”

For weeks, they occupied a space on the Mall adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial and built a settlement they called Resurrection City. “They had places for worship, places for people to have common meals, they had places for town hall meetings,” said O’Connor. “A lot of this was forgotten before the Occupy movement, and even when the Occupy movement happened, very few people recognized that they were replicating a lot of the tactics used in Resurrection City.”

From their settlement, leaders would send out delegations of people to demonstrate in front of various agencies — Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Labor. They’d ask for meetings with officials, and sometimes their requests were granted. Otherwise they’d demonstrate outside the offices.

“It was nowhere near as resounding and triumphant as the March on Washington in 1963,” O’Connor noted. “It had a very mixed legacy. Some write about it as a disaster, some claim it had limited gains, and some write about it as a sign of the dissipation of the movement. The Poor People’s Movement was able to come away with some concessions, though nothing like an economic bill of rights or resounding victory. Still, I think it’s a really important part of King’s legacy that rarely gets recognized.”

Inspiring a New Generation

Most students coming to UCSB are well acquainted with Martin Luther King, even if their knowledge narrowly confines him to the civil rights movement and to the “I Have a Dream” motif. “One of the things we try to do in the Black Studies department is to bring out those aspects of King that are not well known,” said Stewart.

Tiana Miller-Leonard’s studies led her to a fuller and broader understanding of King as a leader. “We’re still facing a lot of the same issues that he was facing,” said the history undergraduate. “Learning more about him, and reading more about him, I used to think maybe he was naïve. Maybe he didn’t have the right approach. But now I think that rather than his message having failed or being incomplete, I think it’s really the failure of American society to truly embrace his message. He really did understand what needs to be done, and we just need to keep listening to him.”

For Kashira Ayers, an undergraduate majoring in communication and feminist studies, learning more about King helped her learn more about herself. “Growing up in south central L.A., and being a black person and knowing that not too long ago there was segregation, and not too long ago people were criminalized for the color of their skin — and that still happens now — I feel like Martin Luther King’s impact on me was more about my own identity,” she said. “And about me being not just a black woman, but me being more of a contributor to the world, a contributor to this school, a contributor in all aspects of my life.

The Arc of History

It may be that King’s greatest legacy is one of persistence and resolve and an unwillingness to give up the fight. “I think maybe the most important thing is his belief — his faith — that the arc of history tends toward justice,” said Stewart. “We’ll have a lot of problems, we’ll have people opposing us, but the tendency of history is toward justice. So if we keep the faith and continue to struggle, a just world will win out over an unjust one, and I think that’s a very important message right now.”

“It’s a moral and political and intellectual obligation,” added Lipsitz, “and so we need to have an optimism of the will — there’s plenty of reasons for pessimism of the intellect. But, really, what matters most is not how we feel about the path that is ahead of us, but what we do in response to it.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. hpierce

    I was an adolescent when Reverend King died. I’m “white”, and had no experience with “people of color”, until about 2 years before his death. I thought he made a lot of sense, particularly in his “I have a dream” speech, and my dad was impressed, too. Dad was “color-blind”, and so was I. The day after Dr King’s assination, I was attacked at school by a “black” kid, because I was white. One of my teachers, who was black, witnessed the attack. After he made sure I was OK, he verbally ripped into my attacker (the teacher was a big dude), and forcefully pointed out that MLK would be ashamed of my attacker’s action. Mr Dabney “grokked” what Jesus, Ghandi, MLK, and many other people of faith tried to tell us… we all need to be “one”, and respect, care for/about one another.

  2. Frankly

    The lack of comments here I think helps confirm my perspective.

    Articles like this, movies like The Butler, etc., etc., are there for the fixed population of people that derive some or all of their identity, or they make money, or get political power, from the continued claim of racial injustice. It is the sound of one hand clapping over and over applauding the owner’s own show.

    None of these things move any true racists.

    And the rest of us just find it, irrelevant, uninspiring, boring, out of touch, out of date… and disingenuous for our modern time.

    I’m sure if Martin Luther King were alive today he would see that we had accomplished the dream but for those failing to stand up and grab hold of it. He would point out destructive force delivered by the idols of racial victimology and rage… his false contemporaries that continually bait racial conflict for their personal gain. He would see that we are in need of civil rights 2.0… and that the new problem is that there is a powerful elite holding it stuck in the old version. He would talk about the “new slavery”… a state of mind that is perpetuated by the very people claiming to be the champions of racial progress. And lastly, he would recognize that government policies preventing adequate growth in job opportunities and instead increases government hand-outs, to be analogous to the plantation… but a more cruel one that leaves the gates wide open while imprisoning the spirit from within.

    Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech was and should be about being color blind. Racism is manifest in those failing to be color blind… today this failing is dominated by those claiming to care the most. Moving forward will require these people just stop and move on to some other cause.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech was and should be about being color blind. Racism is manifest in those failing to be color blind…”

      the civil rights issue during King’s day was far easier that ours in terms that it was really a bright line distinction – equal protection under the law. the problem is that once you lower the de jure racism, you still have to deal with de facto racism. we continue to have disparate treatment under the guise of law and order. we continue to allow separate forgetting that separate is inherently unequal. what you call race baiting is frustration that bubbles to surface due to the tide of rising expectations and the slow pace of progress.

      1. Frankly

        Then what is the solution to the problem? Is the “frustration bubbling to the surface” helping anything? Are those that inflame the frustration helping anything? An angry man will make stupid mistakes. And angry man embedded in a culture of gangsta lawlessness will make stupid permanent mistakes that ruin his life.

        Where does this behavior originate from today? Why in a world where there is great acceptance for people of all colors and ethnic origins to be integrated and equal, do we have a race still stuck behind and isolated?

        Slavery and the racism of pre-civil rights caused a great sense of racial insecurity. But blacks were not the only group affected this way. For example, look at the historical persecution of Jews. Every other group has moved on. But by the statistics of outcomes, not blacks. They have adopted a uniquely destructive culture that is propped up by the race baiters that benefit in some way by this perpetual state of victim.

        It is those blacks that are raised by people that impress upon them the fact that they are beautiful, smart, creative and capable… and that there are absolute requirements and consequences for bad behavior that will not be tolerated no matter how damn sorry they feel for themselves at times in their lives. That is not the lesson being taught. The lesson being taught is the same that you demonstrate… a hand-wringing of inference that racism still exists and it is somebody else’s fault when destructive bad behavior occurs.

        1. Davis Progressive

          the first solution is to fix the inequity of the justice system. the second solution is to find way to help people escape from the cycle of poverty and mass incarceration. until we do that, we just trap people under a morass of lifelong mistakes.

          is the frustration helping anything? i don’t know.

          i think people feel that they must inflame to get the attention of the mainstream press which was asleep at the wheel during the ramp up to mass incarceration.

          i also think the black slavery experience for lack of a better were is deeper and more impactful than any other group in america except for purpose the native americans, who are struggle as badly as blacks.

        2. Matt Williams

          Good dialogue dp and Frankly. One of the challenges that I have in accepting the perspective that Frankly has laid out, is that there is a difference between frustration (which we have all experienced in our lifetimes) and hopelessness. I suspect that none of us have ever experienced hopelessness the way a huge proportion of young african-americans have. The recurring stories in the media about professionals who lost their jobs in the Great Recession, and now can not even get interviews, much less jobs, indicates that the incidence of hopelessness is spreading in our country rather than receding.

          Frankly’s prescription is to pull oneself up by the bootstraps and triumph over frustration, and I agree that is indeed good advice in the face of frustration. I’m not sure it is enough in the face of hopelessness.

          1. Frankly

            You are missing one critical component of my perspective here Matt. I believe the hopelessness is spoon-fed by the race baiters and the victim-ologists.

            I believe that the hopelessness is perpetuated by racial politics, media and folks that just can’t recognize or accept the achievements in front of them.

            I agree that economic hopelessness is expanding, but this is not limited to a single race or minorities in general. The under-educated are getting pummeled. And much of that pummeling today is directly attributable to two things brought to us primarily from the left of politics: One – the protection of the education status quo by the powerful Democrat-funding teachers unions, and 2: the destruction of job creation that results from extreme demands of environmental protection and tax revenue diversion away from infrastructure and economic development investment by the very people that then moan about the hopelessness of poverty.

            DP offers up standard political rhetoric that stops way short of any actionable solutions.

            the first solution is to fix the inequity of the justice system.

            WTH does this mean? Spell it out. Are you advocating a sort of criminal affirmative action for blacks? Give all black boys two get of out jail free cards? Or do you want reverse racial profiling… where we profile the law enforcement statistics and then and then tell the cops to take it easy on blacks if their numbers show they are over-represented? What exactly are you advocating here?

            the second solution is to find way to help people escape from the cycle of poverty and mass incarceration. until we do that, we just trap people under a morass of lifelong mistakes.

            Again, not a damn thing useful here. If you don’t have any ideas for how we are supposed to do these things, then you are only a parrot repeating the common political talking points.

            “Help people escape from poverty”? How about making more jobs available? If you just want to provide hand outs, those dollars do not even get counted in a persons income… so you do nothing for poverty by redistribution of entitlements. If the government gives some poor family $100,000 a month, and that family goes and buys houses, cars, electronics, vacations… all of the stuff that “rich” people get… they would still be counted as being a poor family. So then, what is your solution to lift people out of poverty?

            “trap people under a morass of lifelong mistakes”. Again, what does this mean? If you make mistakes that impact your ability to compete with the highly competitive climb to greater prosperity, then, what… you are advocating another type of affirmative action? One where we wipe the record clean for minorities so they get a second and third chance? You know what will happen then?… these will just end up being chips to cash in for extra occurrences of crime. Yo my brotha… go ahead and do the crime. Yo, ya gots two of them before da man can punish you.

            We can agree to reduce the criminalization of drugs. But I suspect that you will be back crying about the increase in poverty and other social issues as the minorities you thought this would help are now consuming many more drugs.

            The root causes of crappy outcomes in the black community are:

            1. Crappy culture of crime and low accountability for immoral behavior that cranks out 70% of children out of wedlock.

            2. Crappy education system that significantly fails to meet the education needs of the students in these districts.

            3. Crappy jobless economic circumstances from so many regulations to appease the environmental extremists and lack of infrastructure and economic development investment as the money is funneled to pay for entitlements.

    1. Matt Williams

      I agree 100% wdf. That was a great Fresh Air segment.

      My wife and I were driving back from the truly superb David Hockney exhibition at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco this evening and had the pleasure of listening to that interview.

      As an 8th Grader who campaigned for JFK in 1960, I could really relate. We had 115 students in my class. 112 Republicans, the 2 Jewish kids in the class and me. I can’t tell you why I swam upstream, but I did. When my wife and I moved to Dallas in 1989, we had the opportunity to see LBJ from the Texas perspective. The Texas folks we got to know really wanted to embrace LBJ, but deep down inside they couldn’t.

    2. Matt Williams

      Of course the Republicans of that era were a very different lot. The Dixie-crats had not as yet bolted to the Republican Party. When John Connally drove in front of the Texas Schoolbook Repository he was still a Democrat.

      Nelson Rockefeller was the most representative Republican of that era. Henry Cabot Lodge as well.

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