Editorial: Activism inspired by ‘Dream'

York Dispatch, York Dispatch
  • Martin Luther King Jr. promoted peace and the usefulness of discord in the fight for civil rights.
  • He also spoke out against discrimination in policing — to which rioting has long been a common response.
  • King called for black Americans to "assert our dignity and worth."

It can be tempting on a day such as this, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to pare the message down to platitudes. But political, social and moral fault lines across the United States require we stay vigilant — and refrain from the temptation to anesthetize ourselves by watering down the civil rights legend’s true message.

FILE - In this April 30, 1966, photo, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd of some 3,000 people in Birmingham, Alabama, in Kelly Ingram Park on the last day of his three-day whistle-stop tour of Alabama, encouraging black voters to vote as a bloc in the primary election. President Barack Obama signed an order Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, designating a historic civil rights district in Birmingham as a national monument, placing several blocks of a city once rocked by racial violence on par with landmarks including the Grand Canyon. (AP Photo/JT, File)

Martin Luther King Jr. is not a one-dimensional symbol of turning the other cheek — or dreaming, though his faith-based oration absolutely inspired such symbolic spiritual visions.

Beyond vision and inspiration, King understood the usefulness of discord. And while he did not advocate violence — rather, he denounced it — he also conveyed that protest and conflict are necessary to the advancement of civil rights.

Fifty years ago this month, King retreated to the Caribbean with his wife, Coretta, and a few friends to write his final book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" In the book, published in June 1967, King argued for racial equality for black Americans through the wholesale embrace of social and economic reform.

During the book's promotional tour, King spoke out against the Vietnam War and criticized U.S. leaders for allowing slum conditions to persist in the cities. "Everyone is worrying about the long hot summer with its threat of riots. We had a long cold winter when little was done about the conditions that create riots," King said in June 1967.

King's shift from dreamer to radical resonates for activists

Today’s young activists take inspiration from King; they say King's harsher words resonate just as much as his methods of peaceful protest.

"We do King a disservice when we try to tell a flat story of turning the other cheek," said 31-year-old Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100 in Chicago. "It was never simply that."

As Carruthers sees it, "agitation" was the core of King's work. "Their agitation shows up differently than how our agitation shows up today. However, I think King's work and the work we do are part of the larger tradition of black radical resistance."

In 1967, King called for black Americans — then barely a century out of bondage — to "assert our dignity and worth."

"The job of arousing manhood within a people that have been taught for so many centuries that they are nobody is not easy," King told the audience. "Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery."

King fought to end public segregation and fought for the right to vote. But he also advocated for a living wage and worked to close the employment gap for blacks and spoke out against discrimination in policing — to which rioting was a common response.

Today’s social justice climate is similarly fraught. This past weekend, President-elect Donald Trump attacked civil rights legend John Lewis (on Twitter, of course) for questioning the legitimacy of the Republican billionaire's White House victory, intensifying a feud with the black congressman days before the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and as the first African-American president prepares to leave office.

Trump unleashes Twitter attack against civil rights legend

The 16-term congressman said Friday that he would not attend Trump's swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol this coming Friday and that it would be the first time he had skipped an inauguration since joining Congress three decades ago. Lewis, among the most revered leaders of the civil rights movement, suffered a skull fracture during the march in Selma, Alabama, more than a half-century ago and has devoted his life to promoting equal rights for African-Americans.

On this MLK Day, let’s reach beyond the platitudes and speak out against those who would deny, overtly or otherwise, the dignity, right to equal opportunity and worth of all Americans.

—The Associated Press contributed to this editorial.