When I was in elementary school, we had lessons about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. It was always a cool topic to discuss: a peaceful movement putting one of America’s most shameful periods to rest– and King is such an inspirational person to learn about. However, I was a bit shocked to learn about his post-Selma career, seeing as I learned nothing about it in school.
King’s failed visit to Chicago, his eventual focus on class and the Vietnam War, and the Poor People’s Campaign– I learned all about it last summer reading David Remnick’s book about Barack Obama. In elementary school, there was just a gap between the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and King’s assassination in 1968. I couldn’t tell you exactly what he was working on in between those years until recently, but I can vouch for its importance. King realized that the de facto tool of discrimination is economics; that even without official segregation, African Americans were limited by poverty, economics, housing, and education discrimination that if left unaltered, would essentially keep African Americans segregated from the rest of America.
This problem is the reality of most of the industrial North. Detroit is 82% black. Chicago is the most segregated city in the United States. The “inner city” most people speak of is usually the African American center of that city. When deindustrialization began in the 1970s, white flight movement began to the suburbs because of new job opportunities. Banks, homeowners associations, and even local governments hampered the escape of the few African Americans who did try to escape the poverty. The rest, unaided by a government that soon became convinced that ending the “problem” of government could only be done by destroying the safety net, sank into deeper poverty.
Martin Luther King Jr. saw this problem in 1966. He went to Chicago to try to change things. And he left the Windy City in 1967 disillusioned in himself and the methods that had brought success in the Deep South. Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago, had succeeded in preventing the needed change King and his lieutenants hoped to catalyze. He became more radical after this point, speaking out against the Vietnam War and proposing socialistic ideas to combat poverty. None of these changes, of course, endeared him to whites. J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI had him investigated. Whites jeered at him in Chicago and in other cities. And then was assassinated in Memphis, probably the most obvious symbol of hate in a divided nation.
Despite becoming a martyr for civil rights, he still was demonized. Jesse Helms of North Carolina described King on the Senate floor in 1983, the year a national holiday was declared on King’s birthday, as someone who advocated “action-oriented Marxism,” shorthand at the time for “dangerous traitor.” That disgraceful remark was made thirty years ago, not that long ago. Nowadays, everyone treats the holiday as a national time to think about how far we’ve come as a country thanks to the peaceful and harmonious views of King. “I have a dream” is oft quoted on this holiday, but his work trying to end poverty and the Vietnam War is never mentioned.
Those jeering whites celebrate today not because they support ending racism and inequality in all forms, but because the lines “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,” makes everyone feel good about themselves. People would much rather talk about racial reconciliation and harmony because it shows how far we’ve come as a country. “It’s what Dr. King would want,” they say. Martin Luther King Jr. would very much like us to have racial reconciliation. He would also like us to tackle the extreme poverty most African Americans face that is never mentioned on the holiday dedicated to his dream.