It’s taken me years to truly understand the brilliance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was not only the face of the Civil Rights movement. He was also the voice, the hands and the feet. His willingness to die for his beliefs made it possible for me to write these words today.
And make no mistake. King was willing to die. That’s what makes the fatalistic tone of his last speech so haunting.
When he stood in the pulpit at a Memphis church on the night before his assassination and famously proclaimed that there would be difficult days ahead, it seemed a mundane moment. His tired eyes and weary tone spoke louder than his words that night. But what he said was, in many ways, prophetic.
“Like anybody I would like to live a long life,” King said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land.
“I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day he was shot dead while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.
A peaceful legacy eroding
He was just 39, but during his short life, he marched and he spoke. He wrote and he strategized. He was jailed and he was beaten. He laid the groundwork for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
King achieved all this while marching. And in doing so, he achieved peacefully what a battalion of soldiers could never do with violence. He moved a nation.
And yet, on the 50th anniversary of King’s greatest triumph, when more than 200,000 witnessed the oratory mastery of his “I Have A Dream” speech, the victories wrought by King’s life and death are being dismantled.
In June, the Supreme Court scuttled the Voting Rights Act by dismantling Section 4, making the law more difficult to enforce.
Next, the Supreme Court made it harder for workers to sue for employer retaliation and discrimination — rights they had under the Civil Rights Act through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
And in the wake of those decisions, we now sit, celebrating the brilliance of a man whose willingness to march afforded us the rights that are being unceremoniously snatched away.
We celebrate a man who led activists too young to know they were about to achieve the impossible.
We celebrate a man for whom a violent death was the inevitable end to his peaceful beginning.
But as we rightly celebrate that man, let us also realize that it’s time for a brand new dream.
How to keep the dream alive
King began his march into history with the belief that he could help shape America into a place where his children would be judged by their character.
He began his tour of Southern jails with the conviction that racial equality was achievable.
He bore violence and hatred in pursuit of the right to be a man.
But by the time he’d readied himself for that final march in Memphis, he was looking beyond race, and trying to address the most salient measure of a person’s value in America. King was looking to economic equality.
Fifty years later, it would seem that America has made progress on King’s dreams regarding race.
We have elected a black president and more blacks are now in college than at any time in American history.
There is a growing black middle class and more black chief executives than ever before.
But the economic issue — the inequity that affects us all — is rapidly remaking America into a nation of haves and have-nots. And make no mistake: There is a racial element to that, as well.
By the numbers
The Washington Post reports that in 1963, black families earned 55 cents for every dollar earned by whites.
By 2011, blacks were paid just 66 cents for every dollar paid to whites. But, income inequality in America eclipses the boundaries of race.
Since 1970, the top one percent of American income earners has doubled its share of U.S. income from 10 percent to 20 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Meanwhile, the rest of us muddle through.
So today, as we celebrate a man who marched to great effect, we must embrace the painful reality that his dream is incomplete, and the time for marching has passed.
If we are to carry out the vision that King embraced at the time of his death, we must implement smart, effective strategies in order to reverse the trend toward economic inequality. We must stop yelling and start doing. We must put down the signs and pick up the pace.
If we are ever to be free as a country, we must come to understand that we must act or be left behind.
We can’t march to catch up anymore.
It’s time to run.