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Dr. King's Dream of a Better System

J. Mijin Cha

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs today, it is remarkable to note how the challenges faced by activists 50 years ago are so similar to those we face today. But instead of being deflated by this reality, and progress has been made for sure, this anniversary is an invaluable reminder of how change can be made. Inspiration for the struggles we face, not just at home where fast food and retail workers are organizing at unprecendented levels for dignity and a livable wage, but abroad where war makers are again clamoring for the United States to intervene. 

First it's important to note the radical nature and origin of the March which has been hugely downplayed over time, as Bob Herbert described on Up! this past Sunday:

And remember, the demands of the March were about much more than the right to vote and desegregation. They wanted to reduce Congressional representation of states where citizens were disfranchised. They wanted a minimum wage increase and to extend federal labor protections to agriculture, domestic services, and the public sector workers, and, “a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers-Negro and white- on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” As A. Philip Randolph said in his speech:

We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom

A moral revolution. In last Saturday’s rally, labor unions and women's rights groups joined civil rights groups. The issues people are concerned about range from health care to unemployment to education. Once again, the notion that these issues are interrelated and equally important is coming to the fore.

To commemorate the historic March on Washington, President Obama will speak at the Lincoln Memorial. The election of the nation’s first Black president is often seen as proof that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has come true. But, King's dream was broader. He was an avid pacifist and spoke out vehemently against the Vietnam War, even as he faced strong criticism for his views and for diverging from the civil rights struggle. In his “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech, King said:

For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a Civil Rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed from the shackles they still wear.

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read "Vietnam." It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.

In the Guardian, Gary Younge writes, “King didn't dream of better people. He dreamed of a better system.” At a time when drone attacks are at record levels and threat of military intervention in Syria looms, President Obama has the chance to realize Dr. King’s true dream and change the system by putting a stop to our continual military engagement. In fact, we all have the chance to realize Dr. King’s dream and work to change the system.

More writing and information on the March can be found at the Guardian interactive on Dr. King’s speech, William Jones’ article in Dissent on the Forgotten Radical History of the March on Washington, and The Atlantic on the interview Dr. King gave to Robert Penn Warren six months after the March.