-written by Jamie Martin, FHForward President
This photo is how we remember Dr. King. His legacy today is one of a hero for Civil Rights. His words are now a national treasure, archived in the Library of Congress. One line from his I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington has been particularly popular in recent years:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
This is a beautiful quote! And yet... Dr. King said so much more in that moment. If we wonder what he might have thought about critical studies or systemic racism, we have only to look more closely. Indeed, his speech begins...
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
Indeed, Dr. King was a radical. His message was bold; he firmly demanded when he spoke to "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism" and "the fierce urgency of now." Consider this message about civil unrest:
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.... those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
For his radical message, Dr. King was arrested, and his home was bombed; he was surveilled by the FBI for communist and socialist sympathies; and eventually, he was martyred. None would dare suggest today that King was anything less than a patriot. And yet, there were those who believed he went too far, caused too much trouble, focused too much on the problem.
In fact, one text about Dr. King (and another about Rosa Parks) was recently banned in multiple states where laws have passed concerning divisive concepts. This can give us pause. What will tomorrow's generation think of advocates who face the same charges today? During Black History Month, I invite our community to consider Dr. King's work in context- the whole of his message from both written and spoken word. I believe if we do so, we will find much we can apply today.
"White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.”
—Where Do We Go from Here? 1967