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.
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?