Can Today's Candidates Revive Martin Luther King's "Shattered Dreams"?

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Mr. Jackson is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. His "From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice" won the 2007 Liberty Legacy Prize of the Organization of American Historians. He is a writer for the History News Service.

Democratic candidates have recently been cherry-picking lessons from the civil rights and voting rights campaigns of the mid-1960s. President Lyndon Johnson's achievement in building a bipartisan congressional coalition to secure passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was indeed monumental.

But Martin Luther King Jr. was no mere dreamer. As the civil rights revolution's most famous strategist and self-proclaimed "symbol," King stood at the forefront of a mass political movement with many leaders and agendas. Like Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans and their white allies organized, protested, and voted, forcing politicians to make hard choices and progressive commitments.

While debating the relative achievements of King and Johnson, the candidates are ignoring King's unrealized dreams and strategies for expanding democracy. After 1964, King argued that the nation's leadership needed to address challenges more intransigent than legal desegregation: unemployment, income inequality, poverty, voter disaffection, and racial apartheid in housing and education. King's "shattered dreams" remain our own.

Without poor people's empowerment, King asserted, the American tradition of "socialism for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor" would see no end. Marches, civil disobedience, voter organization at the bottom of American society -- these were the tools of a mass movement King dreamed might "redeem the soul of America."

In the end King concluded that Lyndon Johnson had failed to mobilize and sustain a constituency of poor and working-class Americans that might defend a Great Society dedicated to real equal opportunity. The War on Poverty was too narrow and undemocratic. The war in Vietnam bled America's treasury and disillusioned the poor and black Americans who fought in faraway jungles. Since 1968, conservatives have aggrandized the presidency, exaggerated national security crises and led us into five wars. Millions of poor and working-class Americans have abandoned the political process.

King always dreamed of a nonviolent political revolution that might build powerful constituencies that could back up Franklin Roosevelt's promises of equal rights to jobs, housing, medical care, decent wages, and collective trade union bargaining. King spent much of his life raising money so his organization could mobilize and register disenfranchised voters. Today's candidates must take a cue from King and channel more of their millions into organizing and mobilizing unrepresented voters, especially young people and the poorest Americans. We all must work to guarantee wide popular access and integrity in the voting process itself.

Income inequality has worsened over the last 40 years as the benefits of economic growth and tax policies accrue to the wealthiest Americans. During the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1956, King envisioned "a world in which men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes." We must realize as King did that decent wages and union recognition are essential to redressing American inequality. "The fight for labor rights" was, like civil rights, part of "the fight for human rights." Candidates must loudly advocate workers' rights to organize free of employer intimidation and procedural obstacles.

Candidates must link the interests of the middle class explicitly to the needs of the working poor and the jobless. Nowhere is King's belief that every American has the right to a job clearer than in his first written response to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Civil rights legislation would never redress the extreme poverty affecting Negroes in big cities, King wrote. Only a "massive public works program to employ the unemployed" could do that. Creation of public sector jobs to rebuild America's cities and create a greener nation might again inspire Americans in a time of mounting economic insecurity.

Politicians and citizens must renew King's commitment to dismantling apartheid in housing and schooling. In the 1960s violent conflict between black communities and police forces both dramatized and undermined metropolitan integration. In 1966, in the face of racist mobs, King bravely led marches on all-white suburbs in Chicago. In part he hoped to dramatize the need for strong open housing provisions in Lyndon Johnson's pending civil rights bill. Only in 1968 did Congress pass that legislation, in the wake of the horrible riots that followed King's assassination. Some housing markets and schools have seen desegregation since then. But in many other locales, segregation has persisted, worsened, or reemerged and expanded because of white flight and suburban sprawl. Housing, education, and work opportunity must not be permitted to remain separate and unequal.

As a nation of immigrants and ex-slaves, America can become a "World House," an international showcase for multiracial democracy, King preached in a 1965 sermon, "The American Dream." But he preached also that only in the fertilized soil of economic justice can multiracial democracy take root. Only then would America's moral force outstrip all the military divisions it could possibly muster in foreign adventures. We could all stand to remember that dream.

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  • This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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