Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born on January 15, 1929, turned 39 years old fifty years ago. Assassinated on April 4, 1968, he didn’t make it to 40. Yet in his scant 39 years on the planet, he upended the ways we think about race, capitalism, poverty, power, and imperialism. The powers that be –foundations, corporations, and the media – were okay with him when he talked about race and discrimination. They were much less happy when he rattled their cages, talking about capitalism and imperialism.
When he began to speak out against the Vietnam War, King was pretty much told to stay in his lane. When he didn’t, some of his support drifted away. Yet he persisted. He lifted his voice. He made a difference. And he left a legacy that, fifty years later, we must reclaim.
1968 was a fascinating year, perhaps one of the most important as a game-changer in our national consciousness. King was assassinated, and so was Robert Kennedy, a man who embraced King’s message and who might have been an amazing President, had he been able to complete his campaign and win.
In 1968, despite Dr. King’s assassination, his colleagues executed the Poor People’s Campaign. It brought people from all over the country to the Washington Mall, people who were prepared to confront our government about the way we treated poor people. Some of those who were there spoke of the “absolute audacity” of the people who gathered, who believed they could make a difference.
Their audacity reflected the audacity of Dr. King the man who, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964, spoke of the “audacity to believe” that our society could be different, more accepting of the poor, and more committed to “three meals a day for our bodies, education and culture for our minds, peace and freedom for our spirit.”
Fast forward. Peace is elusive. We may well be looking at a nuclear war with North Korea. Two unstable individuals are playing the 11 year old game (with all due respect to 11 year olds) of mine is bigger than yours.
I think the whole world cringed when 45 continued to sell wolf tickets to North Korean President Kim Jong-Un. 45 keeps calling that clearly unstable leader out of his name, and engaging him in toxic insults. When crazy meets crazy, what does this mean for the rest of us? Fifty years ago, Dr. King would have made time for both, speaking of peace. Now, we have pugilists in charge of diplomacy. This is someplace past challenging – it is a prescription for disaster.
Then we have the new tax bill that flies in the face of everything Dr. King stood for. It will cut social programs, and filter more money to the wealthy. When Dr. King said he had the audacity to believe that people could have three meals a day, he supported the Food Stamps program that House Majority Leader Paul Ryan (R-WI) would like to reduce or eliminate.
More than that, when Dr. King talked about “education and culture” his comments are radically different from those of Education Secretary Betsey DeVoid (of good sense, but she goes by the name DeVos). Her work in these short months has minimized opportunities and safety for students.
This year there will be commemorations of the many things that happened fifty years ago. This year we will again mourn Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy. This year we will remember the 1968 Presidential campaign, the drama in Chicago, the Presidential candidacy of the racist George Wallace, the rising fists of Black athletes at the Olympics, and the peak in Vietnam deaths. We in the civil rights community will think of Dr. King, but 1968 was one of those years, fifty years ago, when lives were upended, conventional wisdom was challenged, and audacity was celebrated. Yes, 1968 was an audacious year; more audacious than many we have seen since.
Fifty years ago, we lost a King and gained audacity. We turned it up and turned it out in cities around the country. We confronted government with the Poor People’s Campaign. Now what?
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