At the Mountaintop: Dr Martin Luther King's legacy still looms large
It’s been 30 years since Martin Luther King Day was celebrated officially for the first time. What has long been a holiday that many Americans take for granted, like everything MLK accomplished during his lifetime, it didn’t become possible without a fight. While today many conservative Republicans try to claim Dr. King’s legacy as their own, it was members of their party who were the staunchest opponents of federal recognition for the civil rights icon.
In fact, North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who was infamous for his insensitivity on issues of race, led a filibuster against the holiday legislation, alleging that King’s associations with Communists and personal infidelities should prevent him for being placed on “the same level as the father of our country and above many other Americans whose achievements approach that of Washington’s.” He also tried to get sealed FBI surveillance tapes revealed to public. Although President Ronald Reagan would eventually begrudgingly sign MLK Day into law in 1983, he too expressed reservations about King’s ideology. When asked if King was a Communist sympathizer, the former president reportedly said, “We’ll know in 35 years, won’t we?”
Today, King is hardly as controversial a figure as he was 30 years ago. He is the subject of feature films, the only non-president to get his own Washington, D.C. memorial, and his activism remains an inspiration for the civil rights generation but also the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, which has sprung up in the U.S. following the deaths of several unarmed black youths. While his historic “I Have a Dream” speech remains his most accessible touchstone for mainstream Americans, it is his rebellious final years that may be most cherished by progressives.
In 1967, King alienated many allies and risked considerable popularity to come out early against military action in Vietnam. King was accused of overreach at a time when he declared in his oft-quoted speech in opposition to the war: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Before an assassin’s bullet cut him down at the tender age of 39, King dedicated the last months of his life to a campaign to eliminate poverty. He realized then what is commonly known now, that the concentration of wealth and power among the wealthiest Americans was gradually ripping the country apart. Income inequality has become more than a buzzword; it’s a way of life that has stubbornly persisted for decades under the leadership of both Democratic and Republican presidents. For those who wish to uphold King’s legacy, this has become their fight – the realization of his vision of a completely fair society, where everyone has equal opportunity regardless of race.