Every year, mainstream media, the far Right, politicians, and clothing stores attempt to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and image to fit their agenda – one that is often antithetical to everything the Civil Rights leader ultimately stood for. With the misuse of King’s words, his legacy and the deeply radical implications of his work have been, in many ways, depoliticized and sanitized, for mass consumption. It is far more romantic to view an array of races holding hands as a dream realized, rather than examine how institutional and structural racism continue to affect racial and economic equity.
Though part of the “mainstream media” that does not always get it right when it comes to reporting on issues of race, equality, and justice, CNN published a list of some of King’s greatest works – beyond “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
‘A Time to Break the Silence’
Sermon delivered at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967.
Why it’s important: This was King’s most controversial speech. Even some members of his own staff warned him not to give it. With this sermon, King decisively came out against the Vietnam War at a time when many Americans still supported it. People were furious. President Lyndon Johnson stopped talking to him. Civil rights leaders criticized him, and major newspapers told him to stick to civil rights. Yet King put principle over personal popularity and continued to oppose the war. One year later to the day he gave this speech, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
‘The American Dream’
Sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on July 4, 1965.
Why it’s important: We’ve heard about King’s dream. But just two years later he told an audience that his dream had turned into a nightmare. King’s sermon addresses questions that could have been snatched from today’s headlines: What is a living wage for workers in menial jobs? Is income inequality as corrosive as racial injustice? What are the challenges of preserving a multicultural democracy?
What he said: King said that class divisions within the United States “can be as vicious and evil as a system based on racial injustice.” King also talked about the dignity of all work, saying that even menial workers should make enough “so they can live and educate their children and buy a home and have the basic necessities of life.”
Writer Hamden Rice powerfully conveys what is so often lost when we talk about Martin Luther King Jr. For the Daily Kos, Rice writes:
“[…] at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished. He gave this great speech. Or some people say, “he marched.” I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.
At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.
My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”
Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don’t know what my father was talking about.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.
He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.
I’m guessing that most of you, especially those having come fresh from seeing The Help, may not understand what this was all about. But living in the south (and in parts of the midwest and in many ghettos of the north) was living under terrorism. “
Surely, we have come a very long way as Americans, from the days of King and the Civil Rights movement. However, today as we reflect on his legacy and work, we must also pay attention to the work that still needs to be done – from immigration reform to gross economic inequality to surveillance to racial profiling. As a nation, we cannot afford to lose sight of King’s vision of America and we cannot give up on seeing that dream truly realized. Our progress, our morality, and our role as a global citizen depends on it.