On Monday, we celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King. However, we seem to be honoring him without the values, support and political will needed to facilitate bringing his dream to reality. He helped a nation see the evil of the Jim Crow laws, our prejudice, and what our racial hatred and religious bigotry were doing to our nation.
He used the words written in our Declaration of Independence — which declared that as a new nation, all men be guaranteed the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — as a bridge to our future and declared them to be a “promissory note” for every American. Dr. King found the courage to elevate those words to the cause of civil rights. Understanding those rights and granting them to all has been part of our nation’s personal struggle.
We were first invaders to a foreign land from European nations pursuing their desire for riches and resources in concert with imperial ambitions. As a nation, we are a product of rebellion with our own imperial notions of manifest destiny.
Beginning as a new adventure and as an extension of Europe’s ongoing nationalist wars for dominance, need for resources, and economic power, the rights of people did not fit into the equation unless you were royalty, wealthy, or a landowner — all sharing the need to control labor.
The European leaders had a dream of exploiting the resource-rich North American continent and exporting their 16th-century monarchy feudal form of government. The new colonies were to be taxed and their populations managed at the monarch’s governmental whims.
As more Europeans emigrated and worked to escape poverty and exploitation, they found new opportunities in America far from the cultural feudal controls that kept them trapped in societies where they did not enjoy many personal freedoms. Coming to a new land meant a sense of freedom and the ability to find their own way independent from their prior nation’s wars, economic subjugation, and religious controls.
Economic subjugation, human exploitation, and religious persecution were what many of the new immigrants knew and were trying to escape. Taming a new land required lots of labor and as the newly arrived white Europeans became more independent and rebellious, a new source of labor was needed — one that could not blend into a largely white population.
Europe’s choice of labor for a new land that could be easily identified and therefore controlled was a black-African population that they believed was inferior or at least labeled that way to keep their Christian consciousness clear as they knowingly imposed their will on a new economic order based on white superiority and slavery.
People convinced themselves that slavery was good when most knew it to be a vial practice, but changing that culture could mean economic ruin, and admitting wrongdoing was equally repugnant. Some in our young nation fought to abolish slavery as our constitution was being written, but political concessions were made, creating enduring tensions. Later, a civil war was fought to abolish slavery, to remain a nation, and our nation is still dealing with its flaws.
Our civil war did not resolve the economics that drove slavery as an institution, mitigate the hatred toward those who imposed the cultural and political shift, or facilitate the freed slaves’ transition into society as “equals.” The fundamental causes that catalyzed our civil war have yet to be resolved.
Dr. King’s efforts were monumental toward greater inclusion, but the winks, nods, and toxic political white supremacy dog whistles remain. His message and dream need reinvigorating within our politics as an aspirational consciousness in how we treat one another, build fairness, accountability, and a collective responsibility into our culture as the foundation for our “unalienable Rights” to all Americans.
For us to continue Dr. King’s legacy of civil rights, culture change, and seeing mankind embrace one another in appreciation and kindness requires a vigilant political strength protecting the right to vote for all Americans. It requires that our educators tell our American history — warts and all — about slavery, Jim Crow, the KKK, the lynchings and that the idea and practice of “separate but equal” was, in reality, American apartheid. We must have the strength to challenge our politicians who are pandering to white nationalists using fear and racist rhetoric designed to divide our nation as they seek power and autocracy.
We have a long way to go in realizing Dr. King’s dream as we defend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the most sweeping civil rights anti-discriminatory legislation since Reconstruction. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed voting practices often passed by state legislatures designed to control who could vote. Both are under assault in many states with new challenges and judges weakening the law’s intent.
These acts were signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson and they laid the groundwork legislatively for helping realize Dr. King’s dream. Fundamentally they focused on eliminating discrimination and ensuring that all Americans have voting rights without prejudice or pretense often imposed by state legislatures.
President Johnson once described how politicians generally courted the white vote this way: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best-colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
The forces of discrimination, racial hatred, and toxic politics are alive and doing well in our country. We need to challenge politicians, judges, media owners, misguided religious leaders, and white Americans who somehow feel that their white “entitled” privilege is threatened. They are the ones threatening our democracy and Dr. King’s dream.
For us to become a better nation, a stronger democracy, and a beacon of justice to the world, we need to embrace Dr. King’s words, his dream, continue building on his legacy, and our nation’s promise of “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all.
Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org