OPINION: King's legacy much more than words

MARTIN Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech was one of the greatest oratorical achievements in American history and one of the emotional high points of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King seared the plight of African Americans into the public consciousness and challenged the US to live up to its founding ideals by ending centuries of discrimination against black people.

King envisioned a new America where people would "not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character".

In doing so, he gave millions of Americans, black and white, a language to express their aspirations for change.

Within two years, Congress had passed legislation outlawing segregation and guaranteeing black voting rights.

August 28, 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of King's speech. King was held up as a symbol of political heroism from a bygone era - and there were inevitable references to President Obama and how he represents the fulfilment of his vision.

Yet King's legacy is more complex. By reducing his career to a single expression - "I Have a Dream" - we trivialise the substance of his message and distort the meaning of his life.

King may have had a Dream, but he was not a dreamer.

Perhaps the best way to understand King is to consider the opposition he faced in life.

In 1963, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover labelled him "the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation" and, with the approval of the Kennedys, began to wiretap his home, offices and hotel rooms.

In time, Hoover discovered many things about King. But his most important discovery was King's readiness to suffer and sacrifice for black freedom - to go to jail, endure beatings and risk death for the cause.

In articulating his Dream, King's appetite for struggle shone through. He said that 1963 was "not an end but a beginning" for African Americans. Securing blacks' basic constitutional rights was his immediate priority. But in a sign of things to come, King also drew attention to the scourge of black poverty.

More and more attuned to the problems of inadequate housing, insufficient jobs and inferior schools, he began to speak of the need for a "radical redistribution of economic and political power" to close the gap between the haves and have-nots.

King also became an outspoken critic of America's involvement in Vietnam, viewing the war not only as morally unjust but as detracting from the struggle for racial and economic justice at home.

King's contribution to his country went well beyond words. Yet in 1968 neither the President, Lyndon Johnson, nor the two living former presidents, attended his funeral.

By then King had become a far more dangerous figure in the eyes of the political establishment.

He was branded a traitor because of his position on Vietnam and a socialist agitator because of his views on inequality.

In difficult times, King often lamented that "the dream I had in Washington back in 1963 has . . . turned into a nightmare". We might ask: if he were alive today, would he view America through the same pessimistic lens? It is difficult to know.

King would surely acknowledge the progress that has been made in America by blacks but he would be dismayed by the deteriorating circumstances of the black poor in a nation where the chasm between rich and poor is wider than ever.

And he would despair of the racial inequities in the criminal justice system so tragically underscored in the recent Trayvon Martin case.

The 50th anniversary of "I Have a Dream" is an appropriate time to reflect on how far America has come, and how far it still has to go, to be the society King imagined.

King was more than a Dreamer who solved the problems of the past. His vision challenges Americans to confront the problems of the present, and to be vigilant in pursuing justice and equality in the future.

Dr Michael L. Ondaatjie is a senior lecturer in American history at the University of Newcastle. Dr Ondaatjie will examine the King legacy in further detail at the Newcastle Institute Forum tomorrow from 7pm in the Hunter Room at Newcastle City Hall. Admission is a $5 donation and can be paid at the door.

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