Each generation looks at history from a different perspective. As someone who came of age in the 1960s, I followed King’s agenda closely. When he urged young men to refuse the draft, I became a conscientious objector. When he called on us to confront racial and economic inequality, I went on a bus from Pontiac, Michigan, to join the Poor People’s Campaign mass march on June 12, 1968.
As a Conscientious Objector, I even followed the King legacy down to Memphis. I worked there for six years as a regional civil liberties organizer, attempting to block the Nixon Administration’s efforts to wipe out the Bill of Rights and destroy movements for social change. We continued throughout the 1970s to make progress in environmental regulations, in breaking down workplace discrimination, in ending the war in Vietnam, and replacing racist and sexist thinking with a broader and more humane view of life. Unions were still strong and able to demand a living wage. Although we lost King, his dream made sense: we believed as he did that the richest nation in the world could afford to extend vibrant health care and education to every person, that we could end slums and poverty, that every child could have integrated, quality education. Even his idea of guaranteeing a median, affordable income for every person made sense.
We had not yet spent trillions and trillions of dollars over numerous generations to pursue destructive and hopeless wars abroad. The conservative counter-attack in the form of the Business Roundtable, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and academic libertarian think tanks had not yet shifted public attention away from Franklin Roosevelt’s freedom from fear and King’s idea of economic equality, to instead convince people that the “free” market of capitalism, freed from government environmental and labor regulations, would solve all our economic problems.
Today, looking across the wreckage of unions, forever wars abroad, the use of tax money for privatization of public schooling, the ballooning profits to the top one percent and the degradation of eighty percent of our society, a massive waste of resources on trillion dollar nuclear weapon “modernization” and gigantic military spending, we may feel a lot like King did toward the end of his life. Always an optimist who believed that unearned suffering would bring about a change and a better society, by 1968 he feared that America’s long-standing addiction to militarism, extreme materialism, and racism would overcome our better natures. He particularly feared that racism created blindness to the grand possibilities of life in his ideal of the beloved community, and would lead to a kind of American fascism and destroy our nation’s relatively young experiment in democracy.
“Hope dies last,” oral historian Studs Terkle wrote at the end of his own life. King said during the Poor People’s Campaign, “without hope, I could not go on.” I believe King would not have given up on the dream for a nation and a people that he deeply loved. He defined that dream in clearest detail when he spoke to trade unionists of the AFL-CIO in 1961:
Differences have been contrived by outsiders who seek to impose disunity by dividing brothers because the color of their skin has a different shade. I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought of their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians, or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we shall bring into full realization the dream of American democracy—a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality—that is the dream.
How and what should we remember abut King? If King had survived 1968, I’m sure he would have replaced his male pronouns. In fulfilling the best elements of its religious and civic heritage, he would have addressed all genders and classes and ethnicities, as Coretta King did after his passing. King’s legacy is that he helped Americans to develop a larger vision of what they could be and what our country could achieve. He reminded us that our ancestors lived through slavery and sharecropping yet we have gone on to make a better day possible. And he told us not to give up. As he said to the AFL-CIO, “As we struggle to make racial and economic justice a reality, let us maintain faith in the future. At times we confront difficult and frustrating moments in the struggle to make justice a reality, but we must believe somehow that these problems can be solved.”
These many years later, the dream remains a nightmare for far too many. Much as we celebrate King, as we should, his is also a terribly painful story about the disappointments and betrayals of the dream of a better world. Yet millions of immigrants come here from around the world because the dream lives on. Is it too late for America? Will internal decay and failure to live up to its ideals destroy the dream, as King feared?
Where do we go from here? Chaos or community? That is the question King asked in his last book. He posed some powerful answers to those questions. If we remember King’s unfinished agenda, it might help us to once again move forward, some day, toward the beloved community.
Michael Honey is an historian, Guggenheim Fellow and Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma. Dr. Honey earned his B.A. from Oakland University, his M.A. from Howard University, and his Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His research focuses on African-American, civil rights and labor history and he specializes in work on Martin Luther King, Jr. Honey's work is noted for his extensive use of oral history, deep archival research, and vibrant writing style. Some of his books include Sharecropper’s Troubadour: John L. Handcox, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and the African American Song Tradition; Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign; and the forthcoming To The Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice (2018). Honey also directed and co-produced the film Love and Solidarity, James Lawson and Nonviolence in the Search for Workers' Rights.
“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a revolutionary, fighting to end social injustice and economic inequality, and a catalyst for the ongoing rebellions of the poor. Honey tells a compelling story of militant, revolutionary love in action. This is a dangerous book.”
-- Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination