artin Luther King, Jr. is one of the most revered figures in American history and at the same time, one of the most exploited. Everyone from McDonald’s to politicians have attempted to co-opt his message and use it for their own gain. No where is this more evident than in the debate about affirmative action, which opponents say King would have rejected. He wanted people to be “judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin,” they argue and while King did say that, that’s not all he said about the subject. King actually argued that a major racial redistribution of wealth is necessary.
The Words of Martin Luther King, a collection of his speeches and writings, selected by Coretta Scott King, contains this illustrative passage:
“Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.
“When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate healthcare — each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct. Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost to society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms. This fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade were obtained at bargain rates. The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black public officials.”
I imagine it’s very uncomfortable for a lot of people — black, white, and Asian — to read these words, especially today. As we celebrate his sacrifice on Martin Luther King Day, his words remind us just how far we are from living his dream. No doubt King would be happy to see President Barack Obama inaugurated again today. But I doubt King would be placated by the existence of what he called a “few black public officials.”
People who claim to adore King, yet use him a symbolic shield in their efforts to preserve their power and interests are perverting his legacy. Dr. King’s biggest concern wasn’t reverse racism. He wasn’t gunned down because he was working to ensure a fair high school and college admissions process or a fair job application process for whites. He was gunned down because he dared to fight the massive injustice perpetrated against African-Americans for centuries and was just starting to win a few battles. Our hearts sink when we read these words because we know that the disparities wrought by slavery and Jim Crow persist in 2013 and that a few more martyrs will likely have to die before we get to King’s promised land.