Updated: Jan 18
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’” Sixty years after his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered in front of an estimated 250,000 listeners during the March on Washington, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s dream of racial equality, class equality and justice remains incomplete.
In a 1967 speech at the National Conference of New Politics in Chicago, King laid out what he described as the three evils plaguing society – racism, poverty and militarism.
His words from 55 years ago still resonate today for millions of Americans as the mechanisms of oppression continue to operate at various institutions in the United States. “As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars.” The economic inequalities King vigilantly fought against in the 1950s and 60s remain visible today as 11.6%, or 37.9 million people in the United States continue to live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census bureau.
The effects of hundreds of years of systemic racism can be seen through the racial discrepancies in poverty. 19.5% of black people and 17.0% of Hispanics in the U.S. live in poverty compared to 8.2% of whites, according to the Congressional Research Service. “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government....” A staunchly anti-war advocate who vigorously opposed the Vietnam War, his vocal disapproval of American foreign policy led to numerous media outlets branding him a traitor.
In the eyes of the American people, he suffered much disdain and hatred.
Today, violent military interventions, complete disregard for international law and the U.S. role in aiding atrocities like Saudi Arabia’s genocide in Yemen serve as a perpetuate to the militarism and brutality King advocated against in his time.
King openly criticized the country’s bloated military industrial complex funding while domestic social programs meant to uplift the population from poverty by providing a social safety net remained underfunded.
Racial inequalities don’t exist out of coincidence.
They’re part of the larger system of white supremacy, which has existed since the nation’s inception and persists by design of our elected officials with compliance and complacency from the population.
Relying heavily on students and young people, Dr. King dedicated his life to pushing back against the status quo and shifting the social paradigm through his advocacy.
When civil rights activist Dr. Bernard Lafayette was a student at Nashville’s American Baptist Theological Seminary in 1960, he met King during a speech at Fisk University.
“One thing I remember that he said is ‘I came not to bring inspiration. I came to gain inspiration.’ So, he was aware of the students in Nashville.” said Lafayette.
Nashville played a key role in the civil rights movement with students like Diane Nash, John Lewis and Lafayette leading the charge.
Sit-ins, marches and other forms of civil disobedience organized by these students not only impacted local legislation, but also inspired movements across the country.
Like those students from Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and even Belmont University decades ago, students today have the power to help steer the country toward a future of progress by following in the radical legacy of Dr. King.
The 2020 murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police spurred nationwide protests all over the world. Polls suggest this was the largest movement in U.S. history as students and young people utilized community organizing and social media to raise awareness of police brutality.
Today, we celebrate a federal holiday dedicated to honoring Dr. King.
There are streets and schools named after him as well as monuments and statues hailing him as a hero.
But when he was alive, he was imprisoned 29 times, called the “most dangerous negro in America” by then-FBI Deputy Director William Sullivan and died with a disapproval rating of 63%, according to Gallup polls taken in 1966.
The widespread and systemic pushback on King and his civil rights counterparts, who challenged societal norms, shows that doing the right thing isn't always easy.
Although we have made tremendous progress since Dr. King’s Washington D.C. speech 60 years ago, there still remains much more to achieve.
Through following the blueprint of relentless advocacy laid out for us decades ago, we as students can work toward finally achieving Dr. King’s dream.
This editorial was written by Gus Sneh