June 5, 2018 > In search of a dream
In search of a dream
By Frank Addiego
April 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of a tragic day in American history: the day an assassinÕs bullet struck down the nationÕs most prominent civil rights leader. So storied was the figure of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that to modern eyes, he seems almost mythic. But of course, Dr. King was a real man who used his oratory gifts to weigh in on a wide variety of issues and whose words still resonate today.
During this yearÕs Spring Break, San Josˇ State professor Michael Cheers led students on the Martin Luther King We Remember Community Trip, commemorating the 50th anniversary of KingÕs assassination ÒI just felt, Ôwhat better way to teach this history than to go there?ÕÓ he said. ÒMost young people today know Dr. King through the lens of the ÔI Have a DreamÕ speech and the March on Washington but they have very little information pre-March on Washington and after the March on Washington and have very little knowledge on what brought Dr. King there.Ó
The We Remember trip brought together students from various campuses in the Bay Area. Marguerite Hinrichs, a student at Cal State East Bay, felt the trip would be an opportunity not only for herself, but for her two young daughters. ÒIt was stunning that most people commented that not much has changed,Ó she said. ÒThe ideology [of racism] lives on. And thatÕs where the work is. To work through.Ó
One highlight of the trip was a meeting with Andrew Young, a contemporary of King who was at the Lorraine Motel when the assassination took place. While the group was promised only a brief question and answer period followed by a single photo op, Cheers said, Òthis man stayed almost two hours and posed for a lot of pictures.Ó
KingÕs advocacy for the poor led him to his fateful final speech in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968. ÒHe had come to Memphis, really, because he was beginning to recruit for this very ambitious and very controversial campaign called the Poor PeopleÕs Campaign in Washington,Ó said author Hampton Sides, while promoting his 2010 book, ÒHellhound on His Trail,Ó which follows the days leading up to KingÕs assassination. ÒThe idea was to take thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of poor peopleÑAfrican Americans but also from other backgroundsÑto Washington and to build this shanty town on the Mall to protest multi-generational poverty [and] systemic poverty.Ó
According to Sides, ÒKing sort of made this left turn into Memphis when he heard about this garbage strike because it seemed like the perfect local indigenous expression of what he was trying to do in Washington.Ó
Despite KingÕs presence in the American consciousness, the fact that he weighed in on a variety of issues, from his thoughts on the 1964 candidates to his critique of the war in Vietnam, tend to be overlooked. ÒI donÕt think people have been presented with the full three-dimensional King in all his sophistication,Ó said Professor Nicholas Baham of Cal State East BayÕs Cultural Studies department, who suggests that Dr. KingÕs economic ideas were more socialistic than most people realize. ÒIf you read, for example, KingÕs book ÔWhere Do We Go from Here?Õ itÕs a full-on critique of capitalism [and] he calls for a radical redistribution of wealth in AmericaÉ it seems kind of prescient that he would have written about that in the sixties, but you could clearly see these kinds of things happening. That they would get as bad as they are now where you have you have four, maybe five, people who have more money than 50 percent of us.Ó
King used Vietnam to point out the inconsistent way in which our government treats the poor. ÒAnd you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only $53 for each person classified as poor, and much of that $53 goes for salaries to people that are not poor,Ó he said in a 1967 speech.
Baham points out that as King matured, he became more radical. ÒLord only knows what he would have done had he lived further. Would he have been an advocate of gay rights? What could he have done with the poor peopleÕs movement that he was not able to preside over but he did certainly conceive of and was it as it successful as it could have been without him? What could he have done in a post-Vietnam world with a continued critique of American imperialism. Would he have had anything to say about American Islamophobia?Ó
The night before KingÕs assassination, he had delivered his famed, ÒI Have Been to the MountaintopÓ speech in which he said, ÒI've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.Ó