By James C. Harrington
Director, Texas Civil Rights Project
It's always difficult to write about Martin Luther King, Jr., around the time of the holiday dedicated to him, because the expectation is that it should be something laudatory — and, of course, invoking his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Americans have a way of “flattening” holidays, that is, turning them into something celebratory or vacation-like, rather that looking at them for the challenge they present to us to be better Americans.
Labor Day, for example, has become an end-of-the-summer vacation fling, rather than commemorating the many people before us and the labor movement that struggled to bring us justice in the workplace (health benefits, the 40-hour week, overtime pay, minimum wage, safety and protection, for example). Nor do we use the day to take stock of where we are in terms of working people's rights and how we might strive to protect and enhance them.
The same is true of the Fourth of July. It's become a grand party day, with music and fireworks, but hardly a time to stop and evaluate where we are as a country in terms of the great principles of democracy and civil liberty to which we claim to subscribe.
Presidents Day has become a day to honor all the presidents, no matter how bad their leadership (such as dragging us into Civil War or various Depressions), rather than paying respect to the remarkable leadership of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
So, too, with the MLK holiday. We honor the name of Dr. King, but were forget all the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” that went into the Civil Rights movement. And, of course, his ultimate sacrifice.
We pay scant attention to the fact that Dr. King was passionately non-violent and vehemently opposed war. He would have led the opposition in the streets and pulpit to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the silence of America's pulpits was deafening.
At the end of his life, Dr. King had shifted focus to economic justice, which naturally flowed out of the Civil Rights movement, and was preparing to lead a Poor People's March on Washington. In fact, he gave his life while helping Memphis sanitary street workers organize for better wages.
If Dr. King were alive today, his “I Have a Dream” speech might include something like:
“I have the dream of Ronald Reagan, who said 'Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity.'
“I have a dream of the day when we value and support service in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps as much as we have valued and supported our military prowess.”
“I have the dream of Micah that we will learn to do to justice through education, dialogue, and advocacy for the poor among us.”
“I have the dream of the Apostle James that employers will pay a fair and living wage for all their workers and extend to them health security.
“And I have the dream of Isaiah that 'the wolf and the lamb will live together and the leopard will lie down with the baby goat' and that Christians, Muslims, Jews, and all peoples, regardless of race, religion, and geography will be safe with each other and respect one another as brothers and sisters.”