Martin Luther King Jr. was not a well-liked man. He was one of the most polarizing figures in the United States during his final few years of life. He was not the cuddly creature we re-invent every King Day to lie to ourselves and our kids about how he only wanted us to get along. His approval rating began to rise only after he was no longer here to demand America live up to its ideals.
King wanted peace, but not at the expense of equality. He wanted little black girls and little black boys to play together, but not if it meant pretending racism didn’t exist. He respected authority, but challenged those wearing badges and carrying batons and sitting in the Oval Office.
He wanted moral clarity, not cheap comfort. Were he alive today, he’d still be hated by those wedded to the status quo. Because he’d notice the poor still being vilified as lazy. He’d see large corporations, like Walmart, brag proudly about modest pay increases then quietly announce thousands of layoffs. The GOP would still have enacted a tax law skewed to the rich then pass work requirements for Medicaid benefits – something they have never required of wealthy Americans receiving government largesse. He’d know the government pays private collectors triple what they retrieve in back taxes from the low-income while high-income tax cheats skate.
That’s why we should shelve the “I Have a Dream” speech this King Day. It has been used too often as an excuse to not have to face hard truths or fight for the most vulnerable among us.
Let us instead remember when King refused to denounce protesters by saying “a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
And when he critiqued capitalism: “Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.”
And when he demanded “a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
And when he said, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
And when he was exasperated by those telling him to wait: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
He wanted justice and peace. If he could have only one, there’s no doubt which he’d choose.