WASHINGTON, DC, January 20, 2014 — Martin Luther King, Jr., has been one of the most inspiring, unifying, divisive and reviled men ever to shine in American politics.An icon of the African-American Civil Rights movement, King was denounced as a Communist and was a target of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) until his assassination.
After King’s “I have a dream” speech, the head of COINTELPRO wrote:
“In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”
King was an advocate of non-violent civil disobedience on the model of Gandhi, yet his death was marked by massive riots across America. Saint, womanizer, Nobel Peace Prize winner, revolutionary, icon – King has grown since his death to transcend these labels, commanding respect and recognition to a degree seldom seen in America.
America is criss-crossed by streets named after Martin Luther King, dotted with schools honoring his memory. Volumes have been written about him, his speeches have inspired countless school children and their parents (or been imposed on them by teachers who admire him), and monuments have been raised to him.
Would he be pleased?
King delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history on August 28, 1963. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he sang out the words, “I have a dream.”
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
“I have a dream today.”
So would he be pleased by the roads and the schools and his memorial on Washington’s National Mall? He answered that question himself:
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Jim Crow is gone, the EEOC and the federal courts guarantee the rights of black Americans to sleep in any hotel and to work in any office. They can vote in any election and have something for which to vote. Black men and women have served as Secretary of State, Attorney General, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ambassador to the United Nations. Today a black man will take the oath of office for the second time as the President of the United States.
But almost 50 years after King’s speech, justice does not roll down like waters, nor righteousness like a mighty stream. Children are still as likely to be judged by the color of their skin as by the content of their character. King said, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” and yet bitterness and hatred still mark the feelings of white and black Americans alike in their dealings with one another. King said, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair,” yet many do.
Would he be pleased? No. Encouraged, probably, but after 50 years, we’ve accomplished so much and changed so little. America is as divided as ever, and the fault lines still run along the racial divide.
A memorial was raised to Dr. King on the National Mall. Like the man himself, it stirred a share of controversy. Sculpted by a Chinese artist, critics think the memorial has all the leaden, ponderous weight of Socialist Realist propaganda. Others are delighted by the fact that the sculptor was not American, not white, and not black.