Trinidad: A dream deferred: The assassination of MLK’s Legacy

Fifty years ago on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Since then, he has become canonized in American culture and portrayed as a universally loved Christian preacher — a passive, nonviolent martyr with a dream of racial unity whose life was cut short by a hate-filled, faceless man.

But to simplify Dr. King into a friendly-for-all-ages figure where his years of struggle for human dignity are reduced to a singular moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is to do him a disservice, and it would be unlikely that he would be heralded by politicians with bipartisan support.

Dr. King was a radical.

Dr. King was more than just a leader for civil rights. He was an outspoken critic of America’s hypocrisy — he decried the institutional racism of government, American militarism and imperialism and the economic injustices of capitalism.

Although he is largely remembered for filling hearts with hope with his “I Have a Dream” speech, his heartfelt Letter from Birmingham Jail illustrates how the American Dream was instead the American Nightmare for Black Americans, who suffered vicious lynchings, police brutality, perpetual poverty and segregation.

In his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King recognizes the economic subjugation and physical separation of black Americans and poor whites – the “veterans of the long siege of denial” under slavery and Jim Crow– and calls for financial reparations to help correct the decades of injustice.

King would later expand on this issue of class in American politics in his 1967 book Where We Go From Here. He writes, “I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but…the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.” King recognized that Black Americans experience targeted discrimination, but also saw racism as a mechanism used to divide Black and white Americans in pursuing their shared interest of economic betterment.

In addition for his calls for economic justice, Dr. King also advocated for the end of violence against the Black community. He then extended his scope to protect people around the world from one of the greatest sources of violence – the United States. As the Vietnam War intensified and countless American and Vietnamese lives were lost, Dr. King gave a speech in a New York church where he called for the end of the war and recognized that American violence against Black Americans at home was no different than American violence abroad.

“I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government,” Dr. King said.

But his scathing critique of American social order was unpopular throughout the country, and only 32 percent of Americans held a favorable view of Dr. King two years before his death. After his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King was called “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security” in a memo by an FBI Domestic Intelligence officer. Dr. King was then quickly approved for surveillance.  

This stands in stark contrast to today where 94 percent of Americans view him favorably. Now, Dr. King’s name adorns countless streets and schools, is endlessly invoked by politicians to demonstrate their upstanding morality, and he has a national holiday.

Although Americans have essentially elevated Dr. King to sainthood, they have deferred his dream and his radicalism, and America’s sores of inaction have festered as a result. Americans are plagued with gun violence, the Black community continues to reel from disproportionate police brutality and the working class continues to struggle with stagnant wages.

If Dr. King were alive today, he would have called for nonviolence as well as direct action, integration as well as Black empowerment, and equality as well as democratic socialism. He would have condemned gun violence, marched with Black Lives Matter and stood with union workers for a higher minimum wage.

Simplifying Dr. King’s message into peace and unity by excluding his denouncement of the oppressive and exploitative American culture that transcends race and class is self-serving and misconstrues his message. The convenient whitewashing of these ideas removes the idea of challenging power and promotes a bastardized version of activism through passiveness and submissiveness. This amounts to a second assassination of Dr. King and what he stood for 50 years later.

Instead, we must embrace Dr. King for who he truly was to let his dream explode into action. As long as millions of Americans suffer in poverty, indignity, violence or punishment because of the color of their skin, their class or our inaction, we have deferred Dr. King’s dream. We must have love, compassion and a quest for justice for those who still suffer in this country and around the world, whether they are white or whether they are Black – that is the dream.

Until then, his dream will continue to dry up like a raisin in the sun.

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Miles Trinidad

Miles Trinidad

Miles Trinidad is an Opinion Columnist for the Emerald focusing on politics, social policy and economics. Prior to joining the Opinion Desk, Trinidad was a reporter and covered student groups and ASUO for the Emerald from 2015-2016 and contributed to Flux Magazine in 2017.

Trinidad has worked in political campaigns, non-profit political advocacy, and a legislative and communication role for a U.S. senator.

Trinidad is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in political science, economics, and journalism.