Martin Luther King’s Dream Continues to Be Misrepresented

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man on a noble quest for justice, righteousness, and peace. Many pundits, politicians, and public intellectuals alike find themselves living in his radiant light and quoting some of his awe-inspiring prose — and deservingly so. While King deserves every button, refrigerator magnet, greeting card, and Twitter banner made in his honor, he also deserves a fair and honest portrayal of his radical activism. As the nation pauses on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, it is imperative that we all think of King’s legacy and interrogate how it is represented to the public.

Earlier this year, The New York Times columnist David Brooks invoked King’s famous “dream” in a call to move American society past tribalist practices. He writes, “From an identity politics that emphasized our common humanity, we’ve gone to an identity politics that emphasizes having a common enemy.” Packaging King into a narrow, convenient narrative, Brooks continues, “Martin Luther King described segregation and injustice as forces tearing us apart. He appealed to universal principles and our common humanity as ways to heal prejudice and unite the nation. He appealed to common religious principles, the creed of our founding fathers, and a common language of love to drive out prejudice.”

Such a warm, engaging characterization of King’s ethos sounds great. It’s fluffy and kind. But it is also deceptively incomplete. Yes, King called upon us to see beyond race, creed, and nationality. He certainly called on everyone to see the common humanity in each other. For some, it’s easy to only see this part of King: the excellent orator with an ability to appeal to our shared pathos like no other. This selective interpretation — what one of my high school teachers referred to as “the Santa Claus Effect” — is as ahistorical as it is morally abhorrent. King was a radical by all accounts. He loved radically; he campaigned radically; he fought radically. While he appealed to our common humanity, he also appealed to a very specific, uncommon set of politics. Politics that centered the vulnerable shaped his being. To characterize him as anything less than radical is to piecemeal him into a self-serving narrative.

King had much to say on economic inequality, spending the end of his life waging a campaign to eradicate it. In March 1968, inside the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., King said, “Not only do we see poverty abroad, I would remind you that in our own nation there are about forty million people who are poverty-stricken. … I have just been in the process of touring many areas of our country, and I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying.”

Appealing on behalf of some of the most vulnerable, King said, “This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” King’s activism did not stop at visionary platitudes; it was rooted in non-violent and sustained action challenging policy and morality.

People of good will across the nation continue to tweet, text, and talk about King’s vivid “dream.” It would help to remember that in that same speech, King said, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” So, before reducing King’s speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to little Black and white girls singing “Kumbaya,” the public must collectively examine why there are such disparities between white and Black engagement with police forces. We must explore why some young Black women are brought to their death after being nearly forced into activism. Never forget that King once called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

America was not kind to Martin Luther King, Jr. while he was alive, nor is it kind to Black folks today. When he spoke up for a better world — when he called for races to walk hand-in-hand — he was punished for it. The FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, began monitoring King in 1955, at one point calling him “the most notorious liar in the country.” In 2017, that same organization labeled a new generation of activists as “Black Identity Extremists,” a contemporary manifestation of a malicious history towards civil rights leaders. America can’t pretend to look back at King’s treatment by the FBI with disgust while simultaneously ignoring their targeting of Black leaders today.

To understand King’s legacy as one that centers the humanity of Black people, people abroad, poor people, and others is not an exercise in tribalism. His legacy helps us understand that the type of active mobilization practiced by historically marginalized people is a result of and response to systemic violence. Such work is a cry to the moral senses of the good. King said himself that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

What’s left to do? As a public, we can keep Martin Luther King, Jr.’s many dreams alive, continuing to negotiate and understand the full and complicated history he left us with. We can support spiritual leaders, like Rev. William Barber II and others who are following in King’s footsteps and calling for a moral revival. We can acknowledge and act against anti-Black violence in all forms. We can be zealots against poverty and economic inequality. We can have material impacts on policy that would bring King’s “dream” to life, just as he challenged us to do. In reference to white moderates and others hesitant to join in his radical mission, he expressed a potential need to repent “not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’”

Just thinking about the dream is not enough; it’s never been enough. We have the power to bring it to life. We can reclaim his legacy if we honor all of it.