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Each year on the Monday following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, many (but still not all) people in our nation and, undeniably, throughout the globe gather to commemorate the story of freedom for which Dr. King lived and the dream of justice for which he died. We are bombarded, though only for a season, with the permissive parade of spectacle, as to push history past its remembrance of racial injustices and convince our young that we, indeed, live in a world cured from the fatal ills of yesteryear. Yet the color evasive fictions to which we cling can never heal us of the reality that race matters perhaps more today than it did in 1963 when King delivered his monumental “I Have A Dream” Speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In this elongated procession toward make-believe, too many of us have been left to romanticize Dr. King and his legacy, adopting at least one of two tragic narratives to sum up his life (as if his life were could be fitted into a single story). The first narrative pedastalizes the slain leader, elevating him to a messianic status akin to Christ. As holy martyr, this Dr. King is established as magical and ascetic—a frail deity, whose prophetic vision for hope and togetherness is firmly held together only by the mythologies of postracialism and some ubiquitous, internal hint that scandalously suggests that we have achieved—and solely due to Dr. King’s efforts—social equality, racial harmony, and thus a melting pot reality.
The second narrative invents Dr. King as a kind of Gandhi-inspired Ché Guevara figure, too frequently crystalized as the 1960’s equivalent of Karl Marx in blackface. This Dr. King, is by far, viewed as a radical warrior of class emancipation, evolved beyond what some would see as the trifle of race to confront the more prescient complaints of economic oppression. Indeed, before he was killed, Dr. King had launched his “poor people’s campaign” and had sought to march with labor leaders and workers to fight for fair pay and improved work conditions. However, at the same time, Dr. King was fiercely speaking out against the incursion of war in Vietnam; hence, he was as antiwar as he was antitheft and antiracist. As Dr. King most famously noted: “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The point I’m making is that Dr. King was no more (or less) interested in class than he was with race (or war or a litany of other items, for that matter). He was concerned with justice and freedom and fought against injustice and human bondage in whatever forms they took. And still, his legacy suggests that, beyond liberating the body, our work must first commit to fighting as vigorously as we can to liberate the mind. The essence of Dr. King’s dream, as I will relate it to my thoughts on the racial realities of today, was about something far more powerful than freeing the physical body: It was about the elevation of the mind, hence freeing the imagination.
Whether you give a person a fish or teach her, him, or them to fish, she, he, or they still only eats fish. But if she liberates her mind, then she might imagine other things to eat; her diet will not be limited to fish. She will no longer be a prisoner to charity or someone else’s teachings. Hence, when we liberate the mind, when we nurse dreams—as Dr. King sought to do—we become free to imagine a full range of possibilities—delightful dishes, foods other than fish, that are full of color and creativity, full of variance and the greater aptitudes of difference. Dr. King understood that when we liberate the mind and dare to live within our dreams, when we imagine delightful dishes known only by the far stretch of tomorrow’s intellect, it is only then that we are truly free.
Using a theory of Dr. King’s vision of freedom as a lens, I’d like to make three board points concerning this moment. In making these points, I’ll speak not only of our will to struggle, but also of our struggle to imagine. The issues of Black life (and Black lives), of broken borders and Dreamers, of universal health (i.e., clean drinking water, real food, clean air, etc.) and comprehensive care, of economic justice and global peace—the issues that we’ve been asked to take up in this generation—in relation to the life and philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are precisely about reclaiming imagination. To reclaim imagination, we must return to dreams and believe in things not real or current but certainly possible.
The first point that I want to make is that Dr. King’s truest legacy as it relates broadly to issues of human justice is the imagined proposition that we can cure the ails of a nation, if not a globe, through our dedication to peace, by redressing the wounds of the past through collective and mutually beneficial action; that we can together recover the ideals of prosperity by paying our debts to equity, if not in blood and sweat, then through mutual sacrifice and compromise. This first point suggests that our quests for human liberties, as they are conceived and carried out in this country, only partially attend to Dr. King’s dream.
For example, programs such as affirmative action were not all that bad (though they certainly are not all that good). In some cases it was the only 40 acres and a mule that descendants of enslaved Africans would receive (though 100 or so years late). There programs and policies were to champion the children of Jim Crow whose re-birth certificates were sealed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These programs and policies were the bastard child of Plessy, also playing in the playground of preference to amend the historical (separate but unequal) preferences long enjoyed by this country’s social and racial elite. But more, they were the actions left out of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the ripple that ebbed in the wake of the post-1920’s Suffrage Movement, the alluring cousin of the gay rights crusade that has passionately suggested that love should not discriminate.
Thus, human rights (the protections of human liberties), as Dr. King would have it, were and remains “the hope of a secure and livable world” that “lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” More than things, our commitment to human rights boasts our highest ideals.
My second point is that we are yet to realize “the livable world” to which we were once called by Dr. King to create. Instead we have languished deaf to those sounds of brotherhood that echo defiantly to this day, memorialized in Dr. King’s resounding voice. Over a 150 years ago, however, a great American in whose giant shadow we find shade said, “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
As Dr. King would have it, the equity for which we search, the dream for which we fight, can never be seen as an exclusive policy for Black or Brown people or women only. Rather, it is a pledge to all humanity—past, present, and future—of a dreamed-freed nation that promises all people a liberty more possible regardless of individual and collective differences. Thus, we judge a nation not by how it treats its privileged but by how it treats its vulnerable, for this promise of liberty, Dr. King argued, was for all—descendent of the enslaved and the free alike, all people interested in realizing the transformative potential of “the last best hope” within us.
Today, we desperately cling to this last best hope, understanding that beyond the shadow of Lincoln’s great ideas, a darkened doubt lingers within us. This doubt has given rise to a history of cynicism, inequity, and the stubbornness of inequality. This history has flaunted as inevitable the unlikely condition in which we find ourselves: that all people do not enjoy the same proportions of freedom or degrees of opportunity or success or the same life chances that the determined faith of our foremothers once weaned.
Then, count it not coincidence that, a hundred years after President Lincoln emancipated enslaved people in the U.S. south., Dr. King, in echoing Lincoln’s resolve, rose up against injustice with not only soaring words but also disciplined and ascending effort. His 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, which is perhaps among the most ardent defenses of human justice, scaled us closer to our most earnest ideals to plant a flag of hope near clouds, though in the soil of despair, that we might reach a renewed manifest destiny broader and bolder and more righteous than the loathsome plunder of stolen lands.
In admonishing the nation over its debt to its citizens flanked with oppression, King said:
In a sense we have 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.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
And despite his demand for “the riches of freedom and the security of justice,” the kind that governments can legislate but that people will reject, in the aftermath of Dr. King’s life, we would learn that: “All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” Today, we have gone from the old Jim Crow to the New Jim Crow, as mass incarceration devastates vulnerable communities. In response, we have traded sit-ins for die-in. Thus, the struggle continues.
For as we reacted to racism and injustice—demanding reparations then, “the riches of freedom and the security of justice”—we found a measure of strength in opening access to doors too often closed to many. Negligently, we found soulful respite in insisting that the best of us could exist simply in the cracks hidden in glass ceilings. But this action, as noble as its intent, has only been reactionary in places that demand proaction. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has been, in some ways, divisive in a cold climate that only warms to tolerance when people’s eyes are closed. Though we find ourselves closer physically, we are, nonetheless, beset farther apart ideologically. We live in a country that too often and conspicuously pits one group against the other. The calculus in this struggle is not imaginative; it’s old and is proven to not work.
How do we close the chasms of ideology and mend the schisms of justice to strengthen our bonds toward one another? Perhaps President Lyndon Johnson said it best:
Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in—by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.
Dr. King would have us peer into the unseen so that we can imagine new songs together, sing them or perhaps rap them, but do so while dancing salsa while draped in burqas. With these songs, songs not only of togetherness but of collective imagination and consequence, it was his belief that we might voice a culture that excludes none.
Hence, my final point is simple: If we are to realize Dr. King’s dream, we must cling to the imagination that gave birth to that dream, that makes America what Americans are—not just bodies but beliefs, not just identities but ideas. Dr. King saw America as different than other nations. He saw it as a place with great promise in spite of our great ills. In his words, we can’t cease to dream because as long as we walk, “we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead” and not turn back until the “whirlwinds of revolt . . . shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
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*A similar talk was delivered on January 21st at the 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Michigan State University College of Arts and Letters Panel: Martin Luther King’s Legacy and the Future of Affirmative Action.