By LaKeshia N. Myers
Every year, I get a tad bit unnerved around Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. I get this way because I know many will post pictures and quotations that will celebrate him as a “dreamer” and seek to sanitize his life and legacy in order to fit him into a very safe box, always as a means to ignore and dismiss the totality of his life and work. The truth of the matter is Dr. King was one of the most hated men in America during his life—he was viewed as a threat; a “Black messiah” according to FBI Counterintelligence reports; and someone who was deemed dangerous by his own government.
This was never more evident than after his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in 1967. Dr. King was considered highly controversial after offering his commentary on the United States’ continued involvement in Vietnam. He was shunned by many who considered themselves friends and he became an even larger threat as he was expanding the movement to include more economic and social justice issues beyond those of civil rights for African Americans. Dr. King was intentionally unifying poor Blacks and whites to build a coalition to address rampant poverty that was the focal point for the Poor People’s Campaign.
On April 14, 1967, Dr. King spoke at Stanford University. In his speech entitled, “The Other America”, King described “two Americas” to highlight the growing poverty gap in the United States as a root of inequality. “One America is beautiful for situation… millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity. But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebullience of hope into the fatigue of despair… They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” (King, 1967).
Nearly 54 years after these words were spoken, we are still seeing two Americas. The wealth gap in this country has continuously grown wider as American wages have decreased. Paychecks have stifled and employee pay has not kept pace with the rate of inflation. Schools are inequitably funded and are rapidly re-segregating to pre-Brown v. Board of Education levels. And all the while many politicians who hold the ability to effectuate policy have been overwhelmingly preoccupied with keeping up appearances, maintaining power and promoting mediocrity, which most often turns out to be self-serving (or benefiting corporate interests).
During this MLK holiday, I hope as a society we take stock of our economic and societal health. Poor people are angry for real reasons—reasons that are underscored by generations of racial tension, inequity and fear. We are on the precipice of opportunity or decline—I pray we do what is necessary to change the course of history and do what is right for the majority. It is the only way we will survive.