On what would have been his 92nd birthday, we honor Dr. Martin (Michael) Luther King, Jr. What better time than now, at this perilous moment in our country, to pay tribute to a man who implored us to appeal to our better selves. From his vivid dream to his vision from the mountain top, Dr. King strived to move a country forward that was set on relegating him and many that look like him to second-class status.
Dr. King, known by many as a great orator, a civil rights icon, and a symbol of “progress” in America, has a legacy far more compelling and revolutionary than we have come to fully recognize. The Civil Rights Movement, while a well-known part of American history, is often painted as a completed revolution, a fight won, unity prevailing. The iconic I Have a Dream speech is often used as a literary tool to illustrate our social progress as a country, without acknowledging that Dr. King’s dreams have still not been fulfilled. Quotes cherrypicked from this speech often ignore his broader vision to fit narratives that serve other interests.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
As we continue to remember his words and apply them to our mission, we must also remember his more sobering remarks. As we’ve seen throughout history and more importantly, in recent times with the blatant unjust treatment of Black people and other people of color—and the impunity that often follows, the revolution is far from complete.
Dr. King spoke of the other America and thoughtfully put into perspective the duality of American life. One where people have opportunity, food, material things, education, and freedom—and the other which is, as he describes, a triple ghetto, “a ghetto of race, a ghetto of poverty, and a ghetto of human misery.”
This is the same duality we live with today, where whiteness is prioritized and socialized above all else—so much so that an act of sedition by a predominantly white mob is met with selfies with some police officers and assistance from others and little to no consequence for those without masks, storming the Capitol in hopes contesting a free and fair election—garners a different response than that generated by the cries of injustice from millions across the country who repeatedly march in the streets to simply have their humanity recognized, and are met with violence from police.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Even as eloquent as King was, he could never hide the anguish in his voice during his steady and resolute toil for justice. Constant struggle is not what made Dr. King a great man. Like others, we imagine he had other ambitions and dreams—rather, he was a great man because he recognized the vast injustice in this country and was called to struggle against it. He continued this struggle up until the moment he was assassinated, for the same issues he fought to change.
As Dr. King himself acknowledged, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” In a country that continues to struggle in reckoning with its past aggressions and making amends, we all have a role to play for our posterity. From race, to addressing environmental injustices and health disparities, to 21st century policing, and eradicating poverty, etc.
To honor Dr. King’s legacy and the great contributions he gave to this nation, we all must struggle—for each other, with each other, and against all enemies of progress.
By Taofik Oladipo, Tosin Fadeyi and members of the UCS Black Caucus.