This month, we celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His dedication and his vision, expressed in word and deed, inspire generation after generation.
"I have a dream" is heard in classrooms across America. School children and TV specials remind us of his vision of an America in which we would judge others on the quality their character, not the color of their skin. President George Bush added his praise on the Rev. King's birthday. But we should not airbrush the Rev. King for public viewing. The Rev. King had a dream, but he was just not a dreamer. He was a poetic orator, but he was not just an orator.
Remember me, the Rev. King said, as a "drum major for justice." He was arrested, stoned, knifed, wiretapped, scorned and hated during his life. Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover loathed King, and the bureau sought to discredit him even after his death.
His ministry was controversial because it was committed. On his last birthday, he spent the morning organizing an interracial coalition for a poor people's campaign that would march on Washington and demand a real war on poverty. He stopped for lunch with his family and friends. His staff brought in a cake. That afternoon, he talked with his staff about his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Soon after, he gave his life marching in Memphis for sanitation workers who were on strike.
In a relay race, one runner takes up the baton where the other leaves off. The Rev. King understood this. In his last speech in Memphis, he talked about the threats on his life. "It doesn't matter to me now ..." he said, for "I know we will get to the Promised Land. I may not get there with you but I am certain we will get to the Promised Land." If we truly want to commemorate the Rev. King, we will take up his mission and his march for justice.
That would start with Americans joining together to empower the "least of these." The Rev. King realized the freedom symphony had many movements. The first was the fight against slavery that ended finally after a terrible Civil War. The second was the fight against segregation — legal apartheid — that the Rev. King led and won. The third, following immediately, was the movement for the right to vote, which resulted in the Voting Rights Act only 41years ago. Then came the movement for economic justice, and the Rev. King was leading this when he was struck down.
Now that movement is more vital than ever. Inequality has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age. This administration and the right-wing majority that controls Congress lavish tax breaks on billionaires even as they raise the price of college loans for students and parents, cut home-heating for the elderly and raise the cost of health care. Led by Rep. Tom DeLay, now indicted for money laundering, the Republican majority in Congress invents new loopholes for CEOs with millions in annual salaries, even as it opposes raising a minimum wage that now cannot sustain a family of three above the poverty line. That same majority pocketed millions in drug company campaign contributions and then passed a drug bill that prohibits Medicare from negotiating a better price for seniors.
"A time comes," the Rev. King said in his historic address to Riverside Church opposing the war in Vietnam, "when silence is betrayal." Surely now on Iraq, the Rev. King would be calling on religious leaders to stop "the prophesying of smooth patriotism" and move to the "high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history." The Rev. King decried the fact young men were sent to Vietnam to "guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia."
Today, he would condemn an administration that dispatches young men and women to Iraq to fight for democracy in a country that does not want them there, even as in their own communities, jobs disappear, opportunity dries up and their right to vote is still under assault.
The Rev. King's moral mission, which we honor this month, should help us evaluate the priorities of our nation. As a Christian minister, the Rev. King had a manger-up view of the world, not a mansion-down view. He called upon us to stand up for justice. He called for nonviolent confrontation with injustice. He understood that if citizens of conscience stand up, we can move mountains and make America better.
No one did more to make America whole. And his example calls us to action on this day.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.