If Martin Luther King were alive today, he would be 86 years old, with a full 50 years since his historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for voting rights. Surely there are a number of signs of progress made since King’s assassination. After all, in many ways, America is a different place. And yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
If the best way to remember someone is to do as he would do, then Dr. King would be disappointed with what we have done with his legacy and the manner in which we have squandered the progress he helped to bring about.
Towards the end of his life, a radicalized King spoke of America’s triple evils of racism, militarism (violence and war) and economic exploitation (poverty). Perhaps these are the best benchmarks to judge what has become of the man’s legacy. Sadly, on some levels, things have become even worse.
In America, racism is the badge of slavery that has been so difficult to shake off. In 1964, Dr. King predicted there would be a black president in 40 years or less. Well, we did elect a black president in 2008, in line with King’s prediction, but there was no post-racial America. Rather, racism has not disappeared, and in some cases has intensified as a response by reactionary whites to a browner nation with a black president.
Reminiscent of the Dixiecrats of the Jim Crow era, rightwing conservatives in the Republican Party have committed themselves to white supremacy as a marketing tool and a means of staying in power. The ascendancy of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) as House majority whip — who spoke to a white supremacist group founded by David Duke in 2002 — is but a symptom of a larger disease.
Republicans are banking on the denial of voting rights for people of color and the poor as their road to victory. In states throughout the country, GOP-controlled legislatures have enacted voter ID, voter roll purges and other measures to make it harder for blacks, Latinos, Asians and other constituencies to vote. At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the heart and soul of the Voting Rights Act, which was secured through the efforts of King and the blood of martyred civil rights workers. And in an act of cruelty, if not outright criminality, some conservative lawmakers invoke the name of a “colorblind” Dr. King to justify the dismantling of civil rights and policies of inclusion and opportunity such as affirmative action.
These days, more subtle forms of “liberal” racism linger. For example, what an irony of ironies that while the movie Selma would receive an Oscar nomination for best film, whites received all of the acting, writing and directing nominations, with the exception of a Mexican film director. And while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a black woman, 94% of the Oscar voters are white and 77% are men, with a median age of 62. Meanwhile, films that use white actors to portray people of color such as Exodus: Gods and Kings remain.
However, more blatant forms of racism continue. The murder of black people — such as the extrajudicial killing of Trayvon Martin and the fatal police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford and Tamir Rice — have placed the spotlight on the double standard of white skin privilege in American society and racism in the criminal justice system. As was the case during slavery and Jim Crow segregation, black bodies are undervalued, subjected to discriminatory laws, harsher punishment and death. At their worst, police operate in communities of color not unlike the slave patrols on the plantation, with the authority to stop and frisk, violate and take the lives of innocent, unarmed black people. The war on drugs has targeted our communities and destroyed them, creating the world’s largest prison population, consisting primarily of black and brown bodies. Meanwhile, most whites have an entirely different experience with the legal system, which explains why they believe the police and the courts work for everyone.
Violence and War
Dr. King once called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Five decades later, it is impossible to refute that statement.
America has way too many guns in too many hands — somewhere between 270 million and 310 million guns, roughly a weapon for every American. This is due to the power of the gun lobby — particularly the NRA — its ownership of Congress, an alliance with rightwing extremists and its zero tolerance for gun control. As Politico reported, the NRA has effectively rewritten the Second Amendment, which really applied to the military, to include an individual’s right to own a gun. With the power of the gun lobby, the Open Carry movement, and heavily armed, right-off-the-deep-end militia groups that want to go to war with the government and its black president, states are increasingly passing laws allowing guns in public places, streets, parks, bars, schools and yes, even church.
Not surprisingly, the nation with the most guns also suffers from the most gun deaths in the developed world. Gun deaths are expected to surpass automobile deaths this year at over 33,000. Mass shootings, typically perpetrated by white males, are a regular occurrence, and people seem to barely care to notice. Meanwhile, homicide is the leading cause of death among young black men, according to a recent medical study — more than suicide, car accidents and disease combined. And police officer deaths are on the rise, with firearms as the main culprit.
America’s culture of violence is also reflected in its continued leadership in the use of the death penalty, a holdover from slavery and lynching.
Sadly, as was the case with the war in Vietnam, America still exports its violence abroad, with wars that were waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture of terror suspects, and foreign aid to dictatorships that repress their people. Meanwhile, American tax dollars support the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinians, and the U.S. company supplying teargas to the police in Ferguson, Missouri, to fight protesters also sells their products to Egypt, Israel and Bahrain. Further, as the events in Ferguson helped bring to light, local law enforcement in the U.S. are unleashing military might on local communities. Thanks to the wars on drugs and terror, a federal program allows the cops to bulk up on surplus army equipment. What could go wrong?
At the time of his assassination, Martin Luther King was advocating for the labor rights of sanitation workers in Memphis and was planning a Poor People’s Campaign to provide economic justice to the poor.
Today, in the land of the free, poverty is on the rise, with levels not seen since the 1960s. The gap between rich and poor widened during the Great Recession. Wealth inequality has increased over the years and poses a danger to the stability of the country. Despite the rhetoric of the “American Dream,” where people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make it big in the land of opportunity, the U.S. is now the most unequal of the developed nations. And America maintains an economically segregated education system. For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of America’s public school students are in poverty. Underfunded schools provide a pathway to prison for many impoverished children, while college students are forced to go into $1.2 trillion in debt just to finance their degree.
King said “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” To that end, Dr. King was not some idealistic dreamer who simply wanted people of all colors to join hands for the sake of it but rather someone who called for justice for the have nots, a redistribution of wealth in this nation. Moreover, King the activist took action and confronted power to make this happen.
As the nation participates in the MLK Day of Service, which is important, we should also resist the temptation to dilute his message or believe that our job is done once we have volunteered a few hours of our time. We must also consider efforts such as the multiracial #ReclaimMLK rallies planned on MLK Day across the country, an outgrowth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement to address racism, economic injustice and police violence. If we are to continue King’s legacy, we need a little action as well. There is much work to be done, and we must make a lifelong commitment to justice.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove