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Reflections on the Reasons We Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Part 1)

Each year, this country celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday on or just after his birthday, January 15. Some iconic words from King’s “I have a Dream” speech are rehearsed in our churches, theaters, over the airwaves, and (if we are lucky) in our families’ living rooms and at our dinner tables. It is our official annual moment to reflect on some of the worst and most shameful events in our nation’s history, but also some of its greatest people and their contribution to the improvement of humanity.

We should keep in mind that the core of Dr. King’s message was a profound criticism of this country: we had not lived up to our founding creed, which is that our shared goal is to care about, improve, and maximize the well-being of every person because we have a right to expect this from ourselves and each other. That these ideals cannot be reconciled with slavery or Jim Crow laws now seems almost too obvious to be worth saying. While most of us try to take this moment to reflect, we can nevertheless also detect a certain disturbing self-satisfaction in America’s celebration of this holiday each year, as if the tension in the plot of our collective story was resolved and there was a happy ending.

We can be sure that, if he were still alive, Dr. King would be talking about all the work that remains to be done in our nation’s historic fight against the forces of oppression on the one side, and resignation on the other. Slavery in its original form has ended. Jim Crow laws now take the much weaker, or at least less visible, form of de facto forms of discrimination that systematically grant unearned privileges to some and undeserved disadvantages to others.

These are great successes, to be sure. But in order to understand King’s real legacy, we simply must understand why congratulating ourselves now for the achievements he helped us to attain would be offensive to his memory. His vision was not reformist, but revolutionary, as we can verify by studying the violence and virulence of his opponents. What he achieved, what we achieved with his guidance, were only baby steps in the direction of the revolution he envisioned and preached about.

In fact, there is a tragic version of this story, and unfortunately the tragic version is closer to the truth. In this version, Dr. King was just getting started before he died, and might eventually have led us far beyond the specifically racial forms of injustice to wrestle with essential questions about the essence of injustice itself, in all its forms–all the different ways we fail to give people all and only what they deserve. But at just that moment, after he had decimated the intellectual foundations of American racism, he was murdered before he could enter the deeper battles that he knew would have to come next: the fight for economic equality and labor rights.

This is the detail that the self-congratulators tend to miss when Martin Luther King, Jr. day comes around each year: he was killed, after all his great speeches and marches and legislative successes regarding race policy, when he went to Memphis to fight for the right of public workers there to form a union. We would do well to think about his reason for supporting those sanitation workers in Memphis.

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