|AUSTIN, January 20 - Every year on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, we hear snippets of his eloquent “I have a Dream” speech and see televised scenes from that dramatic gathering of the multitude on the Washington Mall a half century ago.
Few people, however, pause to ask what kind of speech Dr. King would give today to a similar assemblage on the mall.
We act and think as if that dream of Dr. King somehow actually had come true when he sent those words rolling across the 300,000 people in front of him.
Indeed, we airbrush the ringing challenge, even sting, of his speech. Dr. King himself was on a journey to a Promised Land he envisioned, and toward which he tried to point us. That rally, after all, was officially “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” not a march for civil rights only.
In November before his death, Dr. King tied together civil and human rights with economic justice: “violence has been the inseparable twin of materialism, the hallmark of its grandeur.” In other words, civil rights only addressed the tip of the iceberg. The underlying cause of brutality and psychological violence was an economic system that perpetrated and relied on economic disparity, manipulation, and injustice.
We forget that, besides his courageous civil rights work, Dr. King passionately opposed the Vietnam War as unlawful violence by the United States that swept up and killed poor civilians and soldiers in its wake.
And we seldom recall that, at the time of his death in 1968, he was planning the Poor People’s March on Washington and encampment on the mall for economic justice. As Dr. King said, "We have moved from the era of civil rights to an era of human rights."
The Poor People’s Campaign was a multi-racial effort to address poverty in the nation by demanding a $30 billion antipoverty package, including full employment and the annual construction of 500,000 affordable residences.
Nor do we talk about the fact that Dr. King was assassinated, not during his civil rights endeavors, but while helping poor sanitation workers in Memphis organize a union for better wages and working conditions.
Were Dr. King alive today, he surely would be working to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s anti-democratic Citizens United decision, contesting efforts to suppress voting in minority and poor communities, trying to reverse the re-segregation of our schools, and opposing drone attacks on foreign civilian populations.
If he were here today, Dr. King’s 2014 “I Have a Dream” speech surely would include excoriating a Congress, half of which is comprised of millionaires, for not raising the minimum wage to a living wage, letting unemployment insurance expire for displaced workers, and closing its eyes to a tax code that rewards the wealthy. He also certainly would raise his prophetic voice against the aggrandizement of wealth by 1 percent of the country to the detriment of workers and enormous executive salaries earned on the backs of everyday families – one of the worst economic maldistributions in our history.
That is the challenge of this holiday: not the pious renditions of his 1963 speech, but a solid commitment to doing everything in our power to change economic structures so they are more just and fair and serve the community, rather than forcing persons to bear the scourge of a system that oppresses them and encourages violence among peoples.
James C. Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation whose mission statement is to promote civil rights and economic and racial justice throughout Texas for poor and low-income people. It has offices in Austin, South Texas, El Paso, Odessa, and Houston.