Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was 39 when assassinated and this year he would have been 87. Across the nation, the King Holiday is celebrated. Yet increasingly generations of Americans are clueless of his revolutionary spirit.
The King Holiday should not be a ritual but a call to action. King ranks among the top revolutionaries in modern times. It took a revolutionary to desegregate buses in the Jim Crow South. Less than a year after bus desegregation in Montgomery, King went to Ghana for that nation’s Independence Day festivities. It was King’s first time in Africa, and he liked what he saw. He teared up as he joined in the celebration of that country’s freedom. “Both segregation in America and colonialism in Africa … were based on the same thing — white supremacy and contempt for life,” King noted. His Ghanaian experience confirmed that non-violence was an effective strategy. He returned to the United States reassured, determined and more focused.
It was King’s revolutionary spirit which took over 250,000 people on the March on Washington. At the Lincoln Memorial, he warned of the urgency of the time: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy … now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” The following year in a speech at the University of Dayton Fieldhouse — King raised the stakes. “Segregation is evil, sinful and immoral,” he thundered, adding: “It is necessary to say to you not only have we come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go.”
Increasingly, King saw segregation and poverty as two sides of the same coin. It was unacceptable to have millions living in abject poverty in the richest country on earth, he stated. “There are few things more thoroughly sinful than economic injustice,” he told an audience.
He summoned everyone to reject what he referred to as “the triple interlocking evils of racism, exploitation and militarism.” Most Americans, he stated, were “unconscious racists,” and as such the way to eliminate it was to focus on the “root causes.” He called for a “restructuring of the very architecture of American society.” King’s work forced society to ask larger questions about the meaning of freedom, social justice, privilege, and racial arrogance.
King’s call for action was infectious. He succeeded, in part, because he built broad coalitions. He worked with people across race, class, gender, and religious lines. It has been almost five decades since King was assassinated, and over a hundred years since WEB Du Bois predicted that the problem of the 20th century was one of the color line, and racism remains deeply entrenched in the global community.
History may be a burden, but it is empowering in that it serves as a rear-view mirror to shape future directions. King’s life and work challenges the nation to complete its unfinished democracy by ending discrimination. Leadership must stop the excuses, engage in bold experiments, and convert promises into real and lasting solutions. There is the capability to turn the tide, and as King stated: “now is the time.”
It will be a befitting legacy in honor of King, and numerous others including Fannie Lou Hamer, James Chaney, Malcolm X, William Lloyd Garrison, Elijah Lovejoy, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, A Philip Randolph, Rosa Parks, Charles Hamilton Houston, and yes, W.S McIntosh who sacrificed so much to make America stand tall on its founding creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The way out of the continuous racial unrest is to turn that creed into reality for all.
Julius A. Amin, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Dayton.
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