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MLK's Legacy Is Alive and Well
Friday, we honor the 40th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s martyrdom. King was a unique dreamer who planted a universal vision in all of our minds; an orator who turned words and sounds into works of art and liberation anthems.
Rev. King dreamed, but more critically he marched; he organized; he acted. He turned the race "conversation" into revolutionary legislation that would strike down centuries of slavery and segregation: the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision; the '55 court decision validating the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Park's refusal to sit at the back of the bus. From the marching feet in Selma came the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Down the highway to Montgomery came the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And from the Chicago rallies came the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the last of the monumental civil rights legislation that sprang from King.
I had the privilege of working with King on his last journey, launching Operation Breadbasket and taking the movement north to Chicago. His fateful trip to Memphis in April 1968 was to lead onward to the Poor People's Campaign in Washington. At the Rev. Jim Lawson's urging, King agreed that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference must connect with the striking sanitation workers fighting for better working conditions and the right to a union.
We arrived in Memphis on April 3 to make plans for a march scheduled for April 8. In his last public address that evening, given at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, Rev. King not only rallied supporters for the march, but he noted the importance of "withdrawing economic support" as a means of taking protest to the next level.
"As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain," he said.
Quite ominously Rev. King ended by saying, "I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land...I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Then on April 4, 6:01 p.m., as the shots rang out from across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, King fell to the ground on the balcony.
While much focus is on the metaphorical imagery of the "dream," the content of King's journey is found in the focus of his last major project - the Poor People's Campaign - which King envisioned would be a journey for concrete, measurable racial and economic equality. It would be a new peaceful, nonviolent movement for jobs or an income, comprehensive health care, an end to the war in Vietnam and a transfer of resources to a new war on poverty at home. In essence, establishing a human rights "floor beneath which no American should fall."
Were he alive today, King would call for an end to the war in Iraq, and to transfer the $1 trillion war expenses to a new war on poverty at home. He would call for enforcement of civil rights and fair housing laws, and comprehensive government assistance to protect homeowners and end the foreclosure crisis. He would press for equal, high quality education and health care for all Americans.
Rev. King would no doubt rejoice in the prospect of the first African-American or woman as President of the democracy he helped to forge, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton conduits through which a better and more mature America is expressing itself.
Today, King would not let anything or anyone "turn us around." He'd keep on dreaming and organizing to transform inequality into "Equanomics" - race and economic equality in employment, education, empowerment and entrepreneurship for all Americans. He'd show us courage to face down fear, he'd help us work with love for equality and turn anger to peaceful action. That's the Rev. King I knew, and the one I wish were here with us today.
Jackson is founder and president of the RainbowPUSH Coalition.
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