The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the mall in Washington D.C. has already withstood an earthquake and hurricane and its official dedication is yet to come. But it stands as a powerful and soulful testimony to the most fundamental misunderstanding of the great American represented there.
For white America, King is a safe, non-challenging, historical figure who merely shared a dream about what the nation might be someday with us in 1963 and then left us for the edifice so carefully crafted in stone. For whites, if they could but say “we made great progress in civil rights in the 1960’s, and we are nice to one another” we are living King’s dream.
In truth, King is among the most challenging American voices for us to hear now or in any era. His dream was not merely social and political, but it was economic and international in scope. For black America, King continued to lead in a manner that challenged even his own race to follow his example. Economic justice, what is broadly social justice, is central to King’s vision for America and the world God made.
When Dr. King was gunned down in Memphis in 1968, he was becoming an increasing polarizing figure in American life because he dared to touch that place that we as a people even now refuse to go.
He stood with municipal sanitation workers there in their campaign for Union rights and most centrally to be able to say to the world “I Am a Man.”
King also refused to support the Vietnam War and the American imperial system that remains in place to this day. King was for peace and justice, not war and empire. Just prior to his death, 55% of blacks polled declined to support him. Over seventy percent of white people opposed his views.
The great color line drawn by W.E.B. Du Bois at the beginning of the previous century is still with us. The wealth of the world and its resources are not equally shared. Peoples of color suffer unduly by being on the other side of that line. We are trapped in the fine words of the lovely “I Have A Dream Speech” of 1963, but refuse to tackle the words and ideas of Dr. King from 1967 and 1968.
The biblical prophets always ended up by speaking the great unspeakable truths their people needed to hear but had closed their ears to hear. So it was with Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps his most important words were spoken in a series of speeches in those last two years of his life.
In 2011, the United States has yet to open its ears to King’s voice and to hear. Dignified family supporting work, Unions to protect those jobs, housing not wrought in the projects, an excellent, hope-filled education for all that is publicly financed and where all play a part, the end of the American empire of unending war, but rather peace and justice for all nations and Peoples of the world are where we must go as a people if we are to be healed.
As Irene’s winds swirl all about him there in the nation’s capitol, Americans would do well to turn to the prophetic King of 1967 and 1968 rather than the comforting, easily digested King of 1963.
His vision expanded to one that encompassed the world his God had made and he challenges us to go with him up the mountain he saw the night before he was killed. He challenges us to stand with working people, the jailed, the homeless, the sick, people of color who have suffered and continue to suffer injustice, and all those disenfranchised in so many ways by the world in which they live.
King’s ultimate dream is much wider in scope than so many Americans realize. Can we live the truth of it as he saw it when he was taken from us that day in 1968? The MLK Memorial is just the beginning and not the ending. Do we dare pursue the dream?