Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: Revisiting His True Message

A Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was unveiled in Washington D.C. last week at the site he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The monument has become controversial not because King was a controversial figure in his time, which he was, but because of the amount of money spent on the monument, the fact it was created by a Chinese architect, and the belief that it misrepresents King.  There has been criticism that the monument is “communist” architecture, it has been criticized for representing a politically divisive king rather than one of an American Christian, and also that it portrays King as an “authoritarian figure” rather than someone who spoke of “racial equality for blacks.”  I think these criticisms are all overreactions, but I do not care to discuss the monument itself, but instead focus on King’s legacy. I reject the critics that say it misrepresents King because it does not focus exclusively on his “dream” of racial equality. If one wants to the monument to be meaningful, it is important for us to remember what Martin Luther King, Jr. really stood for instead of the image that many Americans have crafted of him. The “I Have a Dream” speech was an iconic and a significant moment in the Civil Rights Movement. The speech is best known for the stanzas where King discusses his dream, especially this one:

“I have a dream that 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.”

Ideally we could live in a nation where people are judged by their character rather than the color of their skin, but this quote has unfairly come to define Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy without the larger context of it and has often been misused to declare that “race doesn’t matter.” A recent polls shows that the majority of Americans believe “King’s dream” has been achieved, essentially stating that race no longer matters. After the election of President Barack Obama, conservatives immediately declared that racism was officially over and we achieved King’s dream; while at the same time many conservatives questioned Obama’s birth certificate and whether he was truly an American worthy of holding the presidency, as if those questions had nothing to do with race. King dreamed of race no longer mattering and led protests that contributed to the passing of Civil Rights laws, and Americans voted for a black president, but neither of those mean that race no longer matters. Ask the family and friends of the innocent black man in Mississippi who was beaten, run over, and killed by white teenagers looking for a thrill, and then bragged about it afterwards, if race no longer matters. You don’t even need to ask the black man’s family — just ask the white kids responsible for the racist murder if race no longer matters. That’s one violent and gruesome incident, but statistics also point to blacks getting less pay for the same amount of education, companies preferring to hire whites over blacks, blacks receiving stricter punishments for crimes, racial profiling, the differences in education, and people subconsciously react different to different races. Race matters! That does not mean we are racist and hate another race, but it means we need to recognize how race plays a factor in everyone’s lives and how we are conditioned to think of other races. Only when people realize how race affects them on a daily basis will we be able to start overcoming the problems of race. The “color-blind” approach does not work because it overlooks and denies the existence of racial problems that exist in society. If we realize that race matters — to everyone — we can begin dismantling the social construction of race and overcoming it, but as long as we pretend that we do not care about race, we are simply preserving the existing racial structure.

As I mentioned, the above quotation has come to define Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, but we need to look outside of that quote, and outside of that speech, to see what Martin Luther King, Jr. actually  stood for if we want to truly honor him instead of using him as a symbol to show the racism that once existed. King held more radical beliefs than most people now days are willing to recognize. Although Americans tend to focus on his desegregation message, King understood that desegregation was not the end of America’s problems and other things need to be addressed. One of the critics of the monument I linked to above argues that the monument should have portrayed King as an American Christian, and therefore left out some of the more radical and international quotes that are imprinted on it. Hence, I want to discuss King’s broader message; not that King’s racial desegregation message was not important, but it was not all that he stood for, and that is not what he should only be remembered for. We must pay attention to King’s larger message to truly appreciate and honor him. Let me point out just a few of King’s quotations that people who manipulate King’s image for their own purposes tend to ignore (thank you internet for helping me find these various quotes):

King on Vietnam:

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam.
I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak
for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I
speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the
leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.

King’s criticism of the U.S.’s growing involvement in Vietnam is generally known, but usually not considered to be part of his larger philosophy, which significantly limits King’s beliefs to a strictly American national approach instead of recognizing the struggle for rights as a transnational one. It is a transnational criticism of the war in Vietnam because King points out that poor Americans are paying for a war that has absolutely nothing to do with them, and the only thing that it is accomplishing is destroying the lives of people in Vietnam. The war in Vietnam harmed both the people in the United States and Vietnam, and therefore King understood the negative implications of the U.S.’s neo-colonialist Cold War foreign policy in a truly global approach. In addition, King — like Malcolm X — spoke out against the war in Vietnam before the large counterculture movement emerged and also reprimanded the war.

King on military spending:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching
spiritual death.

Like King’s criticism of the war in Vietnam, he realized that the U.S.’s excessive military spending (“the military industrial complex”) came at the expense of spending on social programs. While the U.S. continued to build up its military to threaten and dominate foreign markets, it increasingly reduced its funding of social programs that would have benefited the American people. The money spent on the military would benefit those who were heavily invested in the weapons industry as well as the wealthy capitalist class who could exploit the people and resources of foreign nations that had a neo-colonial regime forced upon them, meanwhile average Americans gained little to nothing from the military buildup, and often young Americans died for the benefit of the elite.

King on poverty:

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of
civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant
animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

King’s call to abolish poverty is significant because he clearly understood that desegregation is not the final solution to America’s domestic political problems. I believe this is as important as any of King’s ideas, yet many Americans limit him to his calls for desegregation and his “dream” for people not to recognize people by the color of their skin. King was well aware that the U.S.’s domestic problem extended beyond just racial segregation; something had to be done about the disparity of wealth and the amount of Americans who suffer due to the limited regulations of capitalism. In King’s day, his critics called him a “communist” for pointing out the ineffectiveness of capitalism to deal with poverty. Of course, King was not a communist, but he also understood that strict capitalism failed to benefit the majority of the world’s people, and therefore King wanted fairer wealth distribution. In the 1960s, King’s opponents — from the Ku Klux Klan to the FBI — criticized him for pointing out the injustices of capitalism, but now most Americans ignore his criticisms of capitalism and focus only on his criticisms of segregation, as if he believed segregation was the U.S.’s only problem. Ironically, King went from being labeled a “communist” in the 1960s to now having his monument called “communist architecture.”

King on the purpose of religion:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must
be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an
irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

This is a particularly interesting quote when considering the current political scene of the U.S. King, of course, was a reverend and a very religious man, but he — like America’s “founding fathers” — knew religion’s place in society and knew where it did not belong. The church should not rule the state; it should not have any power over the state or the political process. Instead, the purpose of the church is to provide morality to the people, and he believed a moral people would make better citizens and therefore a better state. Meanwhile, the so-called Tea Party candidates intend to use the church as a tool and interpret laws based on their religion.

King on the purpose of life:

If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.

This quote reminds me of two other advocates of black freedom and political progress who died were also prepared to die for it:

“The price of freedom is death.” – Malcolm X

“If you can’t find something to live for, then you best find something to die for.” – 2Pac

King, Malcolm X, and 2Pac all dedicated their life and careers toward something they would die for: freedom and progress; and each anticipated their own death, but did not let it stop them from promoting their messages.

While many people try to place Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the opposite ends of the spectrum during the Civil Rights Movement, if one compares their messages in the last years of their lives, he or she will find they have much more in common than is often believed. Neither one was willing to accept the status quo; Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a conformist who would settle with just desegregation, nor was Malcolm X an anti-white racist who wanted total segregation. They both desired a world where the rich would not exploit the poor, where the powerful nations would not colonize the underdeveloped nations, where the oppressor would not hold down the oppressed, where the military would not receive preference over the people, etc.

If we are to remember Martin Luther King, Jr., let us remember him for who he truly was and what he truly believed, and not what for some Americans want to pretend he stood for. He did not believe in American exceptionalism, that desegregation was the solution to America’s problems, or that Christianity should rule the government.

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