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Wed January 20, 2010
Bill Knight - January 21
Macomb, IL – Somehow, U.S. society has sanitized Dr. Martin Luther King, just as it's become controversial, even anti-American, to disagree with authority. In all of the comments surely expressed about King on the annual celebration of his birth date this week, his legacy mostly was depicted to be as safe and smooth as his actual life was untidy and rough. People of power and wealth have become accustomed - and Americans have become comfortable - in diluting his life and message until its reduced to four words: "I have a dream."
OK, King had a dream. What's often lost, however, is the reality that he also preached for years after his stirring "Dream" speech in Washington in 1963, years when he also worked tirelessly for peace and for working people. Confronting racism rooted in slavery, King methodically broke down national myths. Working to build bridges, he repeatedly reached out to allies. King showed white America what life was like for others. He drew parallels between struggles.
Therefore, it was easy for him to move past the bonds of racism and see the shackles oppressing others. It was natural for him to go beyond the politics of segregation and explain the policies that subjugated others. And it was simple for him to connect the violence used against one group to be as evil when used against others, whether on picket lines or rice paddies. He eventually spoke out against the Vietnam War, but he didn't limit himself to one foreign-policy disaster, calling it merely one "symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit."
If King had lived instead of being assassinated the day after speaking in support of Memphis workers, he surely would point out how violence continues to hold the nation in its sinister grip. Whether for peace or for labor, King saw a change in values - a restoration of beliefs and actions - to be necessary to "get on the right side of the world revolution" he saw as humanity's destiny.
Humanity's dream, even. However, since his 1968 murder, the United States has repeatedly slipped into a terrible pattern of violence, whether through militarism or other means - all while selectively remembering one hero's contributions.
Today, the U.S. government spends untold billions annually on "defense" and some leaders and commentators still justify torture. Our communities are held hostage by guns in the hands of assailants, guns that some officials propose making more widespread.
Still, public figures forget such contradictions and focus on a dream about integration. Very few politicians or business leaders mention other speeches and writings that went farther.
"A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: This way of settling differences is not just'," he said. "This business of ... filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
King, a crusader for labor, also wrote, "The coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined. Our needs are identical with labor's needs - decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other."
King spoke of diversity before such terms came to be near-empty jargon: "I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream - 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 the human personality. That is the dream..."
Yes, King had a dream. And it was bigger than too many recall.