If you’ve bothered to read, listen or watch a lot of the media coverage around the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, you will be impressed with the laudatory and uplifting coverage.
Inspirational. Forward thinking. Moving. Historic. Monumental. All of these words and many more have been used to describe King that day, as well as the 250,000 people who gathered on the National Mall and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the epic event.
But let’s dispense with the revisionist examination and call King and those gathered that day exactly what they were: radical revolutionaries.
See, if we’re going to hail those band of Americans who fought in the U.S. Revolution as patriots, freedom fighters, and revolutionaries, then we need to do the same for the black Americans who demanded that this country own up to its stated ideals.
Printing words in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution is one thing, but living up to and honoring those words was something else. And far too many Americans, from small towns to the nation’s capital, refused to abide by those revolutionaries who said, “All men are created equal.”
Yet here we stand today, basking in the glow of the March on Washington, and we are still stuck on a superficial conversation about that day and King’s speech: “Is the Dream dead?”
No, what should be declared dead is the empty-headed, weak and impotent discussion about a part of King’s speech that Americans love to embrace. It’s easy to spend lots of time talking about the dream, instead of the nightmare he talked about in the rest of the speech.
Let’s be clear: King was not a quiet, timid, pushover. He was force to be reckoned with who understood that black America could not be truly free from the tyranny of Jim Crow, white racism and bigotry unless that extended to economic freedom.
In the aftermath of slavery, black folks were no longer held in bondage by chains. But releasing freed slaves into America with no land, no money and no jobs was essentially the same. And all too often, slaves were forced to be sharecroppers, working off massive debt to former slaveholders.
The period of Reconstruction offered a tremendous amount of hope and change, but that was destroyed with the Great Compromise of 1877, which led to Rutherford Hayes being named president and the removal of federal troops from several southern states, ushering in a murderous regime that targeted blacks.
And for almost 100 years, this economic system continued to denigrate and degrade black Americans, forcing them to work in a system that held them back with invisible shackles. Douglas Blackmon won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his book on this period: “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.”
King understood that. And it didn’t take him long on Aug. 28, 1963, to make that plain.
“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” King said. “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
Anyone studying the full speech knows that King touched on several themes, but his resounding focus on freedom dealt with the almighty dollar and the opportunities that continued to be closed to black Americans.
So if we are going spend precious time looking back and going forward, it better be about what he was focused on: shedding the invisible shackles to ensure that black folks would have the opportunity to grow and prosper in America just as whites have.
In the five years between this speech and his death, King kept coming back to what was the fundamental unfairness in America: the income inequality between whites and Blacks. His opposition to the Vietnam War was a moral one, but he also made it clear that spending billions on the military industrial complex didn’t aid the poor.
“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such,” King said on April 4, 1968, in his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York City.
When King was killed in Memphis, he was fighting for better benefits for sanitation workers. No, not for them to have a job. But for them to grow and prosper on that job.
He and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were also planning the Poor Peoples Campaign, which sought to build tents and shacks on the National Mall to house protesters. King wanted America’s political leaders to see the poor and what they looked like.
The continuing theme here is economic, economic, and economic. King wasn’t being flowery and nice and non-confrontational. He was preaching a radical economic message because he knew that true freedom meant not living in economic turmoil.
If we are to honor his legacy, and those of the hundreds of thousands who fought the good fight, we better focus on what America is all about: the almighty dollar.
Can I get a witness?
• • •
Roland S. Martin is an award-winning CNN analyst and the author.