On Jan. 21, students honored the memory of MLK — Martin Luther King, Jr — in the same way most Americans do each January: by enjoying a three-day weekend while every media outlet in the country talks about the end of racism and plays clips from the “I Have A Dream” speech. This holiday has become an excuse for the nation to collectively pat itself on the back, enjoying the redemptive myth of King while failing to understand his legacy.
Without a doubt, King deserves the mountain of praise heaped upon him each year. He was a relentless enemy of war as well as prejudice, a champion for a just and egalitarian society. He remains one of the most important and inspirational figures in the history of the United States. Still, those who believe they live in a country that King would be proud of are fooling themselves. America has yet to realize the dream.
The most recent U.S. Census data shows in 2009, 25.8 percent of blacks lived below the poverty level, as opposed to 12.3 percent of white Americans. 35.3 percent of black children lived in poverty, opposed to 17 percent of white children. In 2010, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, blacks were incarcerated at a rate of 2,207 people for every 100,000, whereas 380 for every 100,000 whites were imprisoned in the same year. 2010 and 2011 data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics support these numbers.
The National Center for Education Statistics offers educational and employment data based on race. Their findings from 2007 and 2008 indicate black public school students repeat grades, drop out and are expelled more often than white students. Fewer blacks than whites graduate high school and enroll in college and, if they do, they find a disproportionately high unemployment rate waiting for them on exit.
In short, blacks remain poorer, less educated, less likely to get a job and more likely to go to prison than their white counterparts. Even following the second inauguration of America’s first black president, there is only so much pretending we can do. Barack Obama’s 2008 election may have been historic, but it doesn’t change that during the Republican National Convention that year, a booth vendor was selling buttons asking, “If Obama Is President . . . will we still call it The White House?” It does not change a recent Associated Press poll found anti-black attitudes, both implicit and explicit, have risen among Americans since 2008. Racism today is alive and well.
So is war. King was a staunch opponent of militarism, devoting his final years to speaking out against Vietnam. Everyone knows about King’s four children and the content of their character, but few know that he also said, “A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” Many people remember his final sermon, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop,” but few remember he died before delivering his next speech, titled “Why America May Go To Hell.” Even after his successes in the civil rights movement, King refused to be satisfied with his country and Americans should be appalled at how they celebrate his legacy.
King’s true dream was humans exercising unconditional love toward other humans, love that would prevent injustice and incineration alike. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a fellow activist and friend of King’s, said shortly before King’s death, “The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.” The extent of our failure in that regard cannot be exaggerated.
People shouldn’t honor King by taking the day off. They should honor him by working even harder by looking the ugly realities of America in the face and refusing to accept that we can’t do better. Honor him by standing up and fighting for one of the most profound visions in our nation’s history.
Originally published in The Lumberjack (http://www.jackcentral.org/opinion/columns/mlk-jr-not-celebrated-properly-by-americans/article_27d23853-8259-59f6-8210-99807b19ef04.html)