Revisiting MLK’s dream

by James E. Jones
New Haven, Connecticut - When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on 4 August 1968, I did not understand how the loss of this powerful, positive presence impacted all Americans.

At the time, as an African American activist and student government Vice President at Hampton University, I was aware that his death meant a lot to black people and young people. Consequently, in this tense environment, I helped organise a peaceful march from the university campus to downtown Hampton, Virginia comprising the majority of the campus community. While this protest focused on the death of King and racial discrimination in Hampton, at that time I failed to grasp the full significance of King’s work.

One reason for my myopic vision was that I had fallen in love with The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. I agreed with the 1960s civil rights activist Malcolm X when he stated repeatedly, “It is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.” What I failed to realise is that King struggled to teach his community how to defend itself by fighting the vicious evil of racism while remaining true to the tenants of their faith.

I had also failed to understand King’s efforts as an example of a grassroots Black Power movement. In Black Power: The Politics of Liberation by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, the authors define Black Power as “a call for Black people of this country to unite, to recognise their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for Black people to begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organisations and to support these organisations. It is a call to reject the racist institutions and values of this society.”

I was so busy critiquing what I saw as the shortcomings of non-violent protest as a path to “liberation”’ that I failed to see how King’s assertive, non-violent strategies were propelled by “Black Power”, as defined by Carmichael and Hamilton. For example, the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott – which was a movement to oppose the Alabama city’s policy of racial segregation on its public transit system – from 1955 to 1956, spearheaded by King, was a unified effort that was defined, led and supported by black people. The protesters recognised their heritage by directly confronting the institutional segregation that had oppressed them for years.

In the account of his first boycott speech in his book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, King says, “… I faced a new and sobering dilemma: how could I make a speech that would be militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action and yet moderate enough to keep this fervour within controllable and Christian bounds?”

King’s actions were firmly rooted in his deep theological understanding of the Christian Gospel, which demands love, compassion and justice for all humanity. It was not until I was a student at Yale Divinity School many years later that I came to appreciate his approach, and to see that a person who dedicates himself to a transcendent being who insists on love and justice for all humanity could have a powerful influence.

As we reflect on the inauguration of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, not far from where he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech 48 years ago in Washington, DC, let us remember that his legacy shows that a movement firmly rooted in one cultural community can be a model for all humanity. And so, following King’s example, I urge all Americans to take three actions: to teach, preach and commit.

First, let’s teach our young about the complex history of the Civil Right Movement that King gave his life for. The sugar-coated versions we often hear do not serve to teach the tough lessons that can benefit us today. A good place to start is the PBS history series about the African American civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize.

Second, let’s preach the concept of mutuality that King emphasised repeatedly. As he said, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Now, more than ever, we need this mind set.

Finally, let’s commit to fight for a community based on love, forgiveness, justice and compassion for all by supporting organisations like the Children’s Defense Fund, an American child advocacy and research group, that embody these principles.

Teach, preach, commit in order to make King’s Dream a reality today.


* James E. Jones is Associate Professor and Chair of the World Religions and African Studies Department at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York and President of the Islamic Seminary Foundation in New Haven, Connecticut. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 18 October 2011,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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