The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. feels present today as he comes to life in the film “Selma,” and his message echoes in the protests over African-Americans who died in confrontations with white police officers in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. As art and protest summon the memory of the great civil rights leader, it is an interesting exercise to wonder what he would think if he could truly walk among us again. What if the man assassinated in 1968 could materialize in 2015 and see what has transpired in the nearly half-century since his death?
No one can say with certainty what King would see and say about the nation of today. But his actions and words give clues about what his impressions and concerns might be.
Segregated and poor
In his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, he described the stark reality of the conditions blacks faced in a largely segregated nation. Speaking of the century since the Emancipation Proclamation, he stood before the Lincoln Memorial and said:
“[O]ne hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
King likely would be impressed by how the nation has changed since he spoke. Segregation as a policy or political view is gone. African-Americans are well-integrated into society. A large share of black Americans are now middle class. The son of a black African man and a white woman from Kansas is president of the United States. African-American men and women have become so prominent in so many roles that the phrase “the first black ...” applies in fewer and fewer cases and race sometimes seems not even worth a mention. If he looked in on “Selma,” he would see a film directed by an African-American woman and included in its cast Oprah Winfrey, an African-American talk-show host who became a billionaire.
Race still divides
Yet America is hardly color-blind or without informal segregation. That an African-American can become president is a soaring expression of the American dream, of King’s dream. But the failure of some whites to accept President Obama as their president and the racial subtext beneath the reflexive opposition to anything he proposes speak to the enduring power of race in American politics. Indeed, King might well be stunned to discover that the party of Lincoln is virtually all white and reliant for its political success on the states of the former Confederacy.
And King would be disappointed that, despite the social and economic ascent of many African-Americans, many remain mired in an underclass. Poor blacks still go to all-black and unequal schools, suffer from high crime in their neighborhoods and often face the same contentious relationship with police officers that King condemned as “police brutality.”
King might also be puzzled by the fact that even as African-Americans have gained a greater share of wealth and power, black leaders seem to be less influential. As president of all Americans, Obama is careful to avoid the role of black leader. And beyond him, there is no clear heir to Martin Luther King Jr. as a speaker and leader in the United States. The opportunism of Al Sharpton and his polarizing effect are a mockery of King’s sincere desire to see all races live in harmony.
But what might surprise and disappoint King most would not be the issues of race he addressed in 1963, but the issue of labor and wages he addressed shortly before he was struck down. King went to Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers. He said in a speech to them and their supporters: “So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called ‘big jobs,’ but let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity it has dignity and it has worth.”
Income inequality grows
Today King would find his dream and the American dream fading for Americans of all races. Income inequality is hurting all low- and middle-income families.
The Center for American Progress reports that the average incomes of the top 20 percent of earners grew by 42.6 percent in inflation-adjusted terms between 1979 and 2012, but the average incomes of those in the middle 60 percent grew by only 9.5 percent, and the incomes of the bottom 20 percent actually fell by 2.7 percent.
American democracy seems unable to respond to this trend. State and federal political leaders are increasingly guided by special interests that fuel their ever more expensive campaigns. The Supreme Court has conferred person-hood on corporations while approving changes in campaign financing and voting rights that diminish the influence of real people.
King’s message this King Day might not be a call for the equality of all races, a goal toward which he would see great progress. Rather, he would call for a commitment to equal opportunity and respect for the value of work so that all would have a chance to share in the American dream, his dream.