Since I am writing a book (ok, a doctoral dissertation, but it helps me to think about it as something that will actually get read by someone other than my advisors one day) on the American reconstruction of Martin Luther King, Jr. I have been thinking a lot about him lately. I am currently in the middle of chapter 4 in my book, focusing on the newly dedicated National Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC.
On April 4 (4-4), forty-four (44) years ago, Dr. King was participating in a march demanding equal pay and fair treatment for Black sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. He was also in the midst of planning a Poor People’s Campaign designed to bus homeless and impoverished people from across the country, into the Nation’s Capital to put the problem of poverty and economic disparity created by laissez-faire capitalism (in King’s view) directly in the face of the nation’s legislators (the original Occupy-DC movement). King had been clamoring for a better economic model for years, proclaiming as early as 1965 that “there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
It is not with the slightest bit of irony that the memorial built in his honor in DC would be funded primarily by corporate interests embodying the very same misbegotten labor practices towards which the Poor People’s Campaign sought to bring national attention. Clearly, King is being celebrated in DC for his universal ideals of love, hope, peace, and justice. But those ideals weren’t universal for King if we understand universal as easily accessible or agreed upon by all. Justice, love, hope, and peace meant something very specific for Dr. King, and his articulation of those terms does not easily square with American values today. Look at the corporate sponsors of the Memorial and ask if their values align with the man who decried the triple evils of “racism, materialism, and militarism.”
On this day, let us allow our memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. to extend beyond August 1963 and reflect on the work he did in his last days. Perhaps then we can reverse the tide of his dream becoming an American nightmare.