Dr. King's dream included social justice in all its forms

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 14, 2007

By Reginald David Broadnax

For the Salisbury Post

Today, we celebrate the life and the 78th birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For many of us, our memory of Dr. King is on that hot but fateful August day, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivering the famous “I Have A Dream speech.” Because of that one speech on that hot August day, we remember Dr. King as having a dream; and on celebrations such as this, we vow to keep Dr. King’s dream alive.

We remember the words of that speech where he concluded with what might be the most famous line, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we’re free at last.” But equally as famous from the speech are these words: “I have a dream my four little 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.” And I think it is this line, more than any other, which causes us to both remember Dr. King’s dream, and at the same time, miss his message. Because of this line in the speech, we are told that Dr. King dreamed of a color-blind society. However, Dr. King never says that anywhere in the speech. Certainly, Dr. King dreamed of a society where skin color would not be a hindrance to one’s progress and advancement within the society, but he never said that we should not see and recognize the color of one’s skin.

Unfortunately today, we have condensed the whole of Dr. King’s life and work to a few lines of one speech; which has caused us not only to misinterpret this speech but also the true meaning of Dr. King’s dream. Dr. King’s dream was not just for racial equality but for social justice, not only in the United States but also in the world. Dr. King referred to this as the “Beloved Community”; a human community where all of humanity would share equally in the nation’s wealth and prosperity, and where justice would be the cornerstone of the society. This was Dr. King’s dream, and this was his life’s work. We often forget that Dr. King went to Memphis not necessarily for racial equality but for justice; so that garbage workers in the city might earn a decent living wage. We also forget that Dr. King’s sojourn to Memphis was actually a detour, for at the time he was engaged in organizing a second March on Washington to highlight the plight of the poor within this country.

In 1967, Dr. King in a speech titled “Where Do We Go From Here,” asked:

“Why are there 40 million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in the marketplace. But one day, we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars need restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ ”

It was this concern for poverty and the plight of the poor that not only led Dr. King to Memphis, but also was the focus of his ministry during the last two years of his life.

We also remember Dr. King for his dedication to nonviolence. Dr. King believed that violence, instead of solving our problems, only exacerbated them. For Dr. King, violence is never the answer. We remember Dr. King’s nonviolent protest against segregation in Birmingham in 1963, and the nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote in 1965. But Dr. King’s belief in nonviolence extended beyond these civil rights struggles to his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Dr. King believed that war was the ultimate sign of human failure and that what was needed in the world was a “revolution of values.” In his speech titled “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered exactly one year before his death, Dr. King said:

“A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

From his analysis, Dr. King concluded that “America must be born again.”

So, on Dr. King’s birthday, let us remember Dr. King and work to fulfill his dream by continuing the struggle against poverty; not just in this country, but also in the world. Let us remember him and work to fulfill his dream by struggling to create a just society; a society where there is not a gross disparity between the rich and the poor, and where everyone can share equally of the nation’s wealth and prosperity. Let us remember him and work to fulfill his dream by struggling to create a nonviolent society, and a world that learns to settle its differences not with war, but through negotiation. If we continue the struggle for these things, then we are keeping Dr. King’s dream alive.

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Dr. Reginald David Broadnax is the academic dean of Hood Theological Seminary and associate professor of philosophical theology.