In our public celebration of the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr., there is often not much said about the time between the “I Have a Dream” speech, given 50 years ago today in 1963, and the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech delivered in Memphis the night before his death in 1968. There were certainly some great successes in the civil rights movement during this time, most notably the civil rights legislation that passed into law during the Johnson administration. It was also during this period that King received the Nobel Peace Prize, but in most of the public discourse about King, there is not much said concerning the direction of King’s thought during this period of time. It could be argued that King’s most systemic thinking occurs from 1963 to 1968, yet this is the period in which his thought was most ignored, both during and after his life. I think the reason for this may be precisely because of just how systemic King’s thinking and public discourse was during the last years of his life. He was getting closer and closer to the core structural and systemic problems that perpetuate inequality in our society. He also became one of the most vocal opponents to the Vietnam War. King was pointing to the need for systemic changes to our political and economic structures and practices, and this was all much more radical than the King we as a nation tend to celebrate with a national holiday and with special remembrance today (the day of “I Have a Dream”) and on the day of his death.
At the heart of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of civil rights was his vision for equal opportunity for all. He understood equal opportunity was not possible without civil rights, but he also knew that equal opportunity was not possible without addressing the systemic problem of poverty in our society. This is why he was so thoroughly engaged in the Poor Peoples’ Campaign at the time of his death. This latter part of King’s life and mission is often overlooked, and one could argue it is owing to the fact that he was getting to the systemic bases of inequality in our society, and this poses a threat to those who benefit the most from the economic and political status quo. So much of King’s dream has not been realized, and in some cases such as equal opportunity, social mobility, and the criminal justice system, we have taken steps in the wrong direction.
We have not progressed as far as King dreamed because we have not addressed the systemic issues he was addressing, especially in the years between 1963 to 1968. We cannot make true and sustainable progress towards equal opportunity without making more thorough systemic change. This provides an important lesson as we address the challenges of our time. The civil rights legislation of the 1960’s addressed some of the systemic problems facing African Americans, but it did not fully address enough of the systemic issues of poverty that inhibit equal opportunity (though to President Johnson’s credit he made some significant attempts to focus on poverty). Until we take a more systemic approach to the issue of poverty, we will likely not make much progress towards equal opportunity. Similarly, as we look at the global ecological challenges of our day, if we do not address them systemically, we will likely not make the progress necessary to avoid a major global ecological crisis in the first half of this century. A national holiday for Martin Luther King and a monument in Washington or even another March on Washington, although all good things, will by themselves not bring about equal opportunity – only systemic changes will do that. The celebration of Earth Day, curbside recycling, more efficient light bulbs, and better fuel efficiency, although all good things, will by themselves not bring about ecological sustainability – only more thorough systemic changes will do that. Currently, the calls for such systemic changes in relation to sustainability are being ignored much like King’s calls for systemic change between 1963 and 1968, with the likely result that little progress will be made, unless . . .