Every year on the third Monday in January, the nation remembers Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the revolutionary minister and advocate for non-violent protest who became the voice and face of the struggle for civil rights in America.
The days surrounding the now-federal holiday are marked with municipal observances, mass media programming, and lesson plans in the nation’s schools–all surrounding the central theme of “I have a dream,” an excerpt from King’s 1963 speech at the March on Washington.
Presented by the very government that viewed the famed minister with suspicion, and regurgitated throughout the decades by elected officials, the press, and even history books, this sanitized narrative has all but erased from history King’s disillusionment with the political process, and what he saw as an organized effort to marginalize people of color around the world and pit the working class against itself by provoking racial discord. In fact, by 1967, King confessed his “dream” had “turned into a nightmare,” and was charging ahead with his most ambitious movement to date when he was murdered: The Poor People’s Campaign, which King believed would be his true legacy. Instead, the nascent movement died along with him, cut down by an assassin’s bullet. King was fatally shot on April 4, 1968–the day after he introduced this new initiative in a speech, and just as he was to bring the Poor People’s Campaign to Washington, D.C.
In King’s mind, the absence of universal policies designed to lift all Americans, regardless of race, out of poverty, was in direct opposition to human rights. This was the essence of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty,” King said in a March 1968 speech. “We read one day: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
In King’s eerily prescient speech on April 3, 1968–the day before his assassination–he expressed confidence in what the future would hold for African Americans.
“I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind,” he bellowed. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
What King may have not envisioned was how effectively his legacy would be diluted.
“It seems the entire legacy of this man has been distilled into these four words [“I have a dream”], packaged and spoonfed to the public,” explains Rev. Roger C. Williams, Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Glen Cove, NY. “But this was merely a moment in time in an evolution of thought. It in no way embodies the complexities of the man or the movements he inspired and we’re doing a disservice to our children by striking a single note over and over again, expecting them to hear the entire symphony.”
While history has separated King from more overtly radicalized and rebellious figures such as Malcolm X, King in fact was not the passive, almost-fictional character presented to generations of students to this day, which conveniently avoid any mention of his more radical and increasingly hostile declarations decrying racial economic injustice. His Feb. 1, 1968 speech titled “The Future of Integration” embodied his evolution.
“At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land,” he proclaimed, “through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land-grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm.
“Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming,” he continued. “Not only that, they provided low-interest rates in order that they could mechanize that farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.
“This is what we are faced with,” King added. “And this is the reality. Now when we come to Washington in this campaign we are coming to get our check.”
King’s dream of successfully eliminating economic inequality was never realized. Instead, it was abruptly snuffed out with one lethal round, and those checks were never cashed..
“Ultimately, I think what scared the establishment was Dr. King connecting the dots that economic mobility equated to political power,” explains Rev. Williams. “After the March on Washington, he began to transcend issues of racism and social justice, which were boxes those in power allowed him to fill. Once he broke out of these boxes and began to attack the very underpinnings of the capitalist structure and the military industrial complex, it was almost as though he broke the rules of engagement.
“One of the first things you do when re-writing history is to find a convenient foil or anti-hero,” he continues. “Malcolm X, for example, is largely portrayed as the militant black activist who didn’t see eye-to-eye with Dr. King’s non-violent movement. And so, as a nation, we celebrate King and approach Malcolm X with extreme caution. While there’s an element of truth to this characterization at certain periods, it’s reductive in nature. The fact of the matter is that both men began to recognize a coordinated effort on behalf of our government to oppress poor and working-class Americans and create a culture of fear and distrust along racial lines.”
While Malcolm X was regarded as a firebrand, it was King who consecutive presidential administrations found at times to be a useful pawn in ostensibly reforming civil rights in America.
The relationships between King and the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson was one of convenience, but the halls of power in the United States still viewed King as a significant threat. As King’s star grew brighter, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI became even more emboldened. King was surveilled, had his phones tapped, and was blackmailed–the recipient of a threatening FBI-endorsed correspondence infamously known as the “Suicide Letter.”
“King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is,” it read. “You have just 34 days in which to do it. You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
King was gunned down on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. on April 4th, 1968, and although James Earl Ray, an escaped fugitive, initially confessed to the slaying, he subsequently recanted, maintaining his innocence until his death in 1998. The following year, a jury in a civil trial refuted the claim Ray had acted alone.
Fifteen years after King’s death, President Ronald Reagan declared the third Monday in January a national holiday in King’s honor. Every year when the nation celebrates King, it’s his “I have a dream” speech that rings out across the nation. The Poor People’s Campaign–his dream of exacting true socio-economic change in America–barely gets mentioned.
“In the end, Dr. King’s legacy should be one that speaks to all people,” explains Rev. Williams. “The monolithic portrayal of him as a crusader for social and racial justice diminishes the more revolutionary aspects of his leadership.
“In many ways, we’re only beginning to wrap our minds around language he was using in the Sixties,” he continues. “When [King] said, ‘This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor,’ it may as well be Bernie Sanders out there campaigning.
“You see, the brilliance of Dr. King was his ability to see the entire picture, a spectrum of issues that were interwoven within a capitalist system designed to separate working people from economic power.”