On Monday, we received a day off from school for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which celebrates the birthday of American history's most iconic civil rights leader.
King's message of racial equality and acceptance bears special meaning for me.I attended an elementary school in southeast Memphis filled evenly of black and white students.
I remember taking a field trip to the National Civil Rights Museum every year at the Lorraine Motel, standing where King stood when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I saw where sanitation workers were striking, beckoning King to Memphis and advocating for equality. And because of King's assassination, race relations in my home city have been beautifully out in the open. We can't afford to cover it up, after all.
It is undeniable that King represents a beacon of radical love, nonviolence, acceptance and social peace. Who could read his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" or watch footage of the famous 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech ("... judged by the content of their character") and not be moved by this promise of basic humanity?
Yet, there is more to King's legacy than a desire for society to judge people by their skin tones. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, King was not only attempting to publicize a doctrine of racial tolerance and acceptance but also one that was strongly anti-poverty and anti-war.
It occurred to me on Monday that virtually every notion of these vital components of King's message are commonly overlooked or rendered unimportant.When have you read King's 1967 sermon on the Vietnam War?
Shortly before his death, King, like many growing tired of the death and deceit of Vietnam, offered a willingness to move away from machines and toward people, to beat guns into plowshares, to not study war anymore (Please, read this sermon if you haven't. It's heartbreaking).
When have you heard of a book King published that same year advocating for a guaranteed income?
When have you this from a sermon in 1956: "God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty."
Or from a speech in 1965: "Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God's children."
When did we talk about any of this in elementary school?
The reason we neglect one of the core messages of perhaps America's bravest and most celebrated historical icons is twofold.
First, we want King's image to be neat and packaged, stripping him of his humanity and – compare this to the image of Malcolm X – one where respect and love for fellow man won out. Because that part of his dream did win out. And we're sure proud of ourselves that we think this way now.
Second, we are ashamed to confront those aspects of King's dream that didn't win out: his hope in a better distribution of wealth for all of God's children, for a right to sanitation and somewhere to live. And surely people don't want to hear that King called America the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world."
We want to think of King only in immortalized photographs, places where we can contain his "controversial" stances because, simply, we don't like them. We want to remember King as someone who helped us get where we are now, not someone who would criticize us for not getting to where we should be.
Sometimes people remark that thanks to the work of King and others, we live in a post-racial society. But a post-racial approach to our current condition brushes aside history, how America reached such grave economic and structural inequality in the first place.
What we should really be shooting for is a post-racist society, one where African-Americans, Hispanics, other minorities and even poor whites have a fighting chance of achieving equality with the white upper-middle class, don't have exorbitant unemployment rates, aren't racially profiled, and don't compose basically the entire prison population. How far have we really come?
I know what King would say about this. He'd say, "The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed."
But you probably didn't hear anyone talking about that on Monday.
Wade Scofield is a senior in religious studies and Latin. He can be reached at email@example.com.