Beyond ‘I have a dream’: It’s time to take Martin Luther King Jr. out of the box

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. (iStock/AndreyKrav)The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. (iStock/AndreyKrav)

A year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the poet Carl Wendell Hines Jr. published “A Dead Man’s Dream,” in which he wrote: “Dead men make such convenient heroes/ For they cannot rise to challenge the images/ That we might fashion from their lives.”

Dr. King was a remarkable visionary, a true social justice warrior and a devoted lover of God. What makes me uncomfortable is that the man we celebrate today, both on his birthday and during African-American History Month, is often reduced to a speech about dreams. Too often, commemorating King means only remembering the parts of him that make us feel comfortable—that make us feel we have achieved something because today little black boys and little black girls are able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls. It is easier to reside in the comfort of “I Have a Dream,” his address at the March on Washington in 1963, than to take King out of the box and wrestle with the more radical parts of his vision.

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Too often, commemorating King means only remembering the parts of him that make us feel comfortable.

What do we lose when we focus on the dream? And more practically, how do we move beyond the dream? Here are a few suggestions.

First, we can embrace the radical Dr. King by examining his later works. For example, in the fall of 1967, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation asked him to present a series of lectures, titled “The Trumpet of Conscience,” on topics like economic injustice, international human rights and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Alternately described as “King’s Call to Peace,” these lectures focused on what he called the “triple American evils of racism, materialism and militarism.” But King’s attention to economic injustice and labor organizing is often overlooked today. Taking King out of the box means asking how far we have come in addressing income inequality. It means remembering that King called for “a true revolution of values [that looks] uneasily on the glaring contrast between poverty and wealth.”

Taking King out of the box means asking how far we have come in addressing income inequality and economic injustice.

We can also take King out of the box by posing questions like those he asked later in his career. On the day before he died, in the speech given in support of striking sanitation workers in Tennessee, he retold the story of the good Samaritan. He said that those who refused to stop for the wounded man on the road asked, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”—but the good Samaritan instead asked, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” Today, we should also ask questions like these: If I do not stop to help families separated at the border, what will happen to them? If I do not stop to help the homeless, what will happen to them? If I do not stop to help survivors of rape and sexual abuse, what will happen to them? And if I do not stop to help victims of racist and homophobic violence, what will happen to them?

Finally, to move beyond the dream, we can celebrate those who worked hand in hand with King. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, King referred to “the many people who make a successful journey possible, the known pilots and the unknown ground crew.” These are people like civil rights activist Ella Baker. Explaining her role in the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, she once said: “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come.” As the scholar-activist Barbara Ransby reminds us, when we take the time to consider other, relatively marginal figures of the civil rights movement, a different model of activism and social justice work surfaces that is collective and communal rather than narrowly focused on one person.

In his study of King, the historian Vincent Harding concludes, “Perhaps each generation must forge its own understanding of King’s meaning, must determine and demonstrate the power of his impact and influence for our lives.” It is incumbent on us to ask: What is our understanding of Dr. King? Is it to keep him in a box? Is it to limit ourselves to the “I Have a Dream” speech? Is it to embrace the radical King? Is it to sing hosannas to his name? Or is it to build a better world?

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Todd Witherell
2 months 2 weeks ago

Well done. I found this essay thoughtful and provocative.

“One man come in the Name of Love
One man come and go
One man come he to justify
One man to overthrow”

-U2 “Pride (in the Name
of Love)

It seems to me Martin Luther came
to provide justifications, but Martin Luther King Jr. came to overthrow the (alas, still with us) justifications for American racism, militarism, and imperialism. His deep dream, yes. But also his persistent, undaunted courage and prophetic ability to speak truth to power for which he paid the ultimate price.

What more in the Name of Love, indeed.

Mike Macrie
2 months 2 weeks ago

Let us never forget Dr. King and the Good Samaritan for what they stand for. A very good thoughtful Piece on Dr. King.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

Or is it to build a better world?

But how to build a better world? Only the truth will lead us to it.

Sha'Pearl Jones
2 months 2 weeks ago

Is a Baptist pastor who was a notorious adulterer someone Catholics should embrace? The night before he was assassinated, King slept with a woman (not his wife) in Memphis. Surely we can find better people to emulate.

Tim O'Leary
2 months 2 weeks ago

Régine - MLK Jr. was not perfect and had some very naive views (to say the least) on socialism and communism. However, I have since my youth greatly admired his main mission - to free Americans of all races from judging and treating others by race. I still fervently believe in this goal but I fear many have abandoned it and replaced it with the opposite - "Identity politics" or judgment by group membership. This is the greatest threat to MLK's legacy today.

Todd Witherell
2 months 2 weeks ago

MLK was not perfect, but then neither nor are you, Mr. O’Leary. Is that not correct. He did, however, repeatedly risk and finally give his life to overthrow legalized, racist segregation, Jim Crow, and White Supremacist hate that would not allow black people to vote, eat lunch, sleep in a hotel, etc... The greatest threat to his legacy is not “identity politics” (we all have identities of some kind - racial, religious, economic, linguistic, etc... As Cornel West points out often and this piece also rightly affirms, the greatest threat to his legacy is to try to domesticate his radicalism. According to West, in his book entitled the Radical King, 75 per cent of whites and 55 per cent of blacks opposed him at the time of his death. Why? He was, on Christian grounds, opposed to the murderous, unjust, imperial war against the Vietnamese people, he insisted that American greed was contrary to the Gospel, and that, in words from the black church tradition, every flag is under the Cross. A Cross-bearer, not a Flag-waiver. He wasn’t perfect. He also had sins and faults and failings. Like you and me. But he bore witness unto the end. In dying, he helped free hated black people and hateful white people. And I believe him in that last, mysterious, prophetic sermon. His eyes did see the coming of the Glory of the Lord!

Tim O'Leary
2 months 2 weeks ago

Todd - None of us is perfect, but King was serially unfaithful to his wife (even the night before his death, according to his close friend Ralph Abernathy), which, in this #MeToo era, is especially relevant. As I already said, I still admire him for his commitment to non-violence in overcoming racial segregation, which was his great achievement. While the FBI said he had close connections to US Marxists (came out in 2017 in the JFK release https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41871956), he gave three reasons for ultimately rejecting communism: 1) its atheism, 2) its ethical relativism and 3) its totalitarianism. If he were alive today, I bet he would reject progressivism as it is committed to the first 2 reasons. He most memorable quote from the dream speech was: "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." Racial identity politics judges people by skin color and not the "content of their character.". So does affirmative action. These are all anathema to MLK's principles.

Todd Witherell
2 months 2 weeks ago

MLK was not perfect, but then neither nor are you, Mr. O’Leary. Is that not correct. He did, however, repeatedly risk and finally give his life to overthrow legalized, racist segregation, Jim Crow, and White Supremacist hate that would not allow black people to vote, eat lunch, sleep in a hotel, etc... The greatest threat to his legacy is not “identity politics” (we all have identities of some kind - racial, religious, economic, linguistic, etc... As Cornel West points out often and this piece also rightly affirms, the greatest threat to his legacy is to try to domesticate his radicalism. According to West, in his book entitled the Radical King, 75 per cent of whites and 55 per cent of blacks opposed him at the time of his death. Why? He was, on Christian grounds, opposed to the murderous, unjust, imperial war against the Vietnamese people, he insisted that American greed was contrary to the Gospel, and that, in words from the black church tradition, every flag is under the Cross. A Cross-bearer, not a Flag-waiver. He wasn’t perfect. He also had sins and faults and failings. Like you and me. But he bore witness unto the end. In dying, he helped free hated black people and hateful white people. And I believe him in that last, mysterious, prophetic sermon. His eyes did see the coming of the Glory of the Lord!

Tim O'Leary
2 months 2 weeks ago

Todd - you can remove duplicate comments by pressing the edit button and deleting the contents and then saving the comment.

Todd Witherell
2 months 2 weeks ago

MLK was not perfect, but then neither nor are you, Mr. O’Leary. Is that not correct. He did, however, repeatedly risk and finally give his life to overthrow legalized, racist segregation, Jim Crow, and White Supremacist hate that would not allow black people to vote, eat lunch, sleep in a hotel, etc... The greatest threat to his legacy is not “identity politics” (we all have identities of some kind - racial, religious, economic, linguistic, etc... As Cornel West points out often and this piece also rightly affirms, the greatest threat to his legacy is to try to domesticate his radicalism. According to West, in his book entitled the Radical King, 75 per cent of whites and 55 per cent of blacks opposed him at the time of his death. Why? He was, on Christian grounds, opposed to the murderous, unjust, imperial war against the Vietnamese people, he insisted that American greed was contrary to the Gospel, and that, in words from the black church tradition, every flag is under the Cross. A Cross-bearer, not a Flag-waiver. He wasn’t perfect. He also had sins and faults and failings. Like you and me. But he bore witness unto the end. In dying, he helped free hated black people and hateful white people. And I believe him in that last, mysterious, prophetic sermon. His eyes did see the coming of the Glory of the Lord!

Todd Witherell
2 months 2 weeks ago

MLK was not perfect, but then neither nor are you, Mr. O’Leary. Is that not correct. He did, however, repeatedly risk and finally give his life to overthrow legalized, racist segregation, Jim Crow, and White Supremacist hate that would not allow black people to vote, eat lunch, sleep in a hotel, etc... The greatest threat to his legacy is not “identity politics” (we all have identities of some kind - racial, religious, economic, linguistic, etc... As Cornel West points out often and this piece also rightly affirms, the greatest threat to his legacy is to try to domesticate his radicalism. According to West, in his book entitled the Radical King, 75 per cent of whites and 55 per cent of blacks opposed him at the time of his death. Why? He was, on Christian grounds, opposed to the murderous, unjust, imperial war against the Vietnamese people, he insisted that American greed was contrary to the Gospel, and that, in words from the black church tradition, every flag is under the Cross. A Cross-bearer, not a Flag-waiver. He wasn’t perfect. He also had sins and faults and failings. Like you and me. But he bore witness unto the end. In dying, he helped free hated black people and hateful white people. And I believe him in that last, mysterious, prophetic sermon. His eyes did see the coming of the Glory of the Lord!

Todd Witherell
2 months 2 weeks ago

MLK was not perfect, but then neither nor are you, Mr. O’Leary. Is that not correct. He did, however, repeatedly risk and finally give his life to overthrow legalized, racist segregation, Jim Crow, and White Supremacist hate that would not allow black people to vote, eat lunch, sleep in a hotel, etc... The greatest threat to his legacy is not “identity politics” (we all have identities of some kind - racial, religious, economic, linguistic, etc... As Cornel West points out often and this piece also rightly affirms, the greatest threat to his legacy is to try to domesticate his radicalism. According to West, in his book entitled the Radical King, 75 per cent of whites and 55 per cent of blacks opposed him at the time of his death. Why? He was, on Christian grounds, opposed to the murderous, unjust, imperial war against the Vietnamese people, he insisted that American greed was contrary to the Gospel, and that, in words from the black church tradition, every flag is under the Cross. A Cross-bearer, not a Flag-waiver. He wasn’t perfect. He also had sins and faults and failings. Like you and me. But he bore witness unto the end. In dying, he helped free hated black people and hateful white people. And I believe him in that last, mysterious, prophetic sermon. His eyes did see the coming of the Glory of the Lord!

Todd Witherell
2 months 2 weeks ago

MLK was not perfect, but then neither nor are you, Mr. O’Leary. Is that not correct. He did, however, repeatedly risk and finally give his life to overthrow legalized, racist segregation, Jim Crow, and White Supremacist hate that would not allow black people to vote, eat lunch, sleep in a hotel, etc... The greatest threat to his legacy is not “identity politics” (we all have identities of some kind - racial, religious, economic, linguistic, etc... As Cornel West points out often and this piece also rightly affirms, the greatest threat to his legacy is to try to domesticate his radicalism. According to West, in his book entitled the Radical King, 75 per cent of whites and 55 per cent of blacks opposed him at the time of his death. Why? He was, on Christian grounds, opposed to the murderous, unjust, imperial war against the Vietnamese people, he insisted that American greed was contrary to the Gospel, and that, in words from the black church tradition, every flag is under the Cross. A Cross-bearer, not a Flag-waiver. He wasn’t perfect. He also had sins and faults and failings. Like you and me. But he bore witness unto the end. In dying, he helped free hated black people and hateful white people. And I believe him in that last, mysterious, prophetic sermon. His eyes did see the coming of the Glory of the Lord!

Phillip Stone
2 months 1 week ago

The war in Vietnam was a just war, it was on the brink of being a victory over communist insurgency and cowards and traitors betrayed your brave self-sacrificing troops by subverting the Commanders in Chief and the men on the ground and poisoning the political environment back home in the ol' US of A.

I see no evidence that he did all that much good personally and his "social justice" creed did not conform to the Gospel and is bearing terrible fruit in your contemporary culture as we speak. Malcolm X and Angela Davis and others in the Black Panthers inspired by Marx and Louis Farrakhan inspired by Islam were very much the driving forces at the time.

Now, for all this guff about building a better world.
WE? ... BUILD A WORLD? BETTER?

It is my understanding that God built this world and that He made it the best of all possible worlds, being God, y'know.

Bev Ceccanti
2 months 1 week ago

Dr. Alveda King is a pro-life activist. She called out Governor Northam on killing babies but I've seen nothing from her about his blackface 30 yrs. ago. She has also said her uncle, Dr. Martin Luther King, was pro-life. I thought it worthy of note what she chose to showcase by her statement

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