The commemoration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King has largely, and understandably, been overshadowed by President Obama’s Inauguration. While some op-eds and other statements have been written about Dr. King, there is little attention to the continued significance of his work. What one hears, ad nauseam, are references to President Obama representing the legacy of Dr. King, etc.
I am perplexed by such references. Yes, i know what people mean, but their focus implies that Dr. King was primarily concerned with individual advancement into the ranks of the mainstream establishment and the removal of obstacles to such advancement. While King was clearly concerned about removing obstacles to individual advancement, his work was focused on social and economic justice. In other words, he was not a civil libertarian but was someone fighting for the completion of emancipation. The difference is fundamental. In understanding King one must grasp that he was focused not on challenging the individuals who were obstacles to the progress of Black people to, instead, to challenging the system that dispossessed so many people, including but not limited to African Americans.
King’s first target was Jim Crow segregation, but even in targeting Jim Crow segregation he recognized the critical linkage between racial justice and economic justice. In that sense i join with others who have proposed that Dr. King was, perhaps, the greatest labor leader of the 20th century in the USA, rather than only having been a leader of African Americans. King recognized, more than most leaders in organized labor, that a working class movement in the USA would go nowhere and would ultimately be crushed should it not take on the task of confronting racial injustice.
After 1966 King expanded his targets to include economic injustice and poverty experienced by working class people (crossing the racial divide), along with the question of US foreign policy, all the while never abandoning the fight for racial justice. King’s post-1966 evolution was, as the historians have noted, very controversial and one that, at the time, resulted in the loss of many of his allies. In tones that will sound familiar, King was cautioned–and later criticized–for challenging a Democratic ‘friend’ in the White House. Had King listened to those words he would not have offered his historic 1967 speech against the Vietnam War and he may not have laid plans for the Poor People’s Campaign. He might have retreated into the role of footnote. Instead, he took the plunge.
Yes, Barack Obama would not be the President of the USA were it not for the work of King and the millions who constituted the freedom movements of the 1950s and 1960s. That is true. But what is most important for us to remember is that King’s work was never completed. His work was not solely the elimination of racial injustice but the challenges to profound economic injustice and the imperial role of the USA internationally. To practice today what Dr. King’s life represented must mean a strong and active commitment to the struggles for social, economic, political, global and environmental justice. That’s right; it does not stop with the question of the color of the person occupying the White House.