Yale University

Sound Off !

Martin Luther King's Unfulfilled Dream

Tony Lee

September 22, 2013

Category: Society > Rights

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1964 has had a tremendous influence on me — initially in 1964 and then later during the troubled years of Vietnam, MLK’s assassination in 1968, the Rodney King riots in the early 90s, the OJ verdict in 1995, and more recently the Trayvon Martin decision. I remember King’s speech first and foremost for his message of racial equality, but his views were actually more profound and global.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, connects the dots on underlying political and social dynamics in her editorial for The Nation magazine of September 23, 2013:

“But as I pause now to reflect on the meaning and significance of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, I realize that my focus has been too narrow. Less than five years after the march, Dr. King was speaking out against the Vietnam War, condemning America’s militarism and imperialism — famously stating that our nation was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He saw the connections between the wars we wage abroad and the utter indifference we have for poor people and people of color at home. He saw the necessity of openly critiquing an economic system that will fund war and reward greed hand over fist, but will not pay workers a living wage. In the years following the March on Washington, Dr. King ignored all those who told him to stay in his lane, just stick to talking about civil rights.

“Yet here I am, decades later, staying in my lane. I have not been speaking publicly about the use of drones abroad in a “war on terror” or the use of SWAT teams in routine arrests in the “war on drugs” at home. When we declare war on “things” like terrorism and drugs, it becomes easy to forget that real people — mothers, fathers, and children — will be targeted, caged, and killed without due process, without consideration of their basic humanity, and without asking the hard questions required of complicated social and global problems that cannot be solved by a simple declaration of war.

“I say that I want to honor Dr. King, but I have remained silent on many things that matter. I have not been talking publicly about the connections between the corrupt capitalism that bails out Wall Street bankers, moves jobs overseas, and forecloses on homes with zeal, all while unemployment rates reach record levels and private prisons yield high returns as they expand operations into a new market: jailing immigrants.

“I say that I want to celebrate Dr. King’s contributions, and yet I have not been connecting the dots between the National Security Agency’s spying on millions of Americans, the labeling of mosques as 'terrorist organizations,' and the spy programs of the 1960s and ‘70s — specifically the FBI and COINTELPRO programs, which placed civil-rights advocates under constant surveillance, infiltrated their organizations, and assassinated racial justice leaders.”