“I have a dream that one day, every valley shall be exalted […] and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.” Delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, more than 50 years after his tragic death, his words continue to resonate deeply in our current social climate.
Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929. He was a beloved civil rights activist who fought for socio-economic equality by ensuring that people, regardless of their gender or skin color, were granted equal opportunities in a world infected by racism and prejudice.
Each year on January 18, we honor him through Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday, where parades and speeches are delivered in his honor. However, his impact spreads beyond the U.S., and he is celebrated globally on this day. Despite mobility limitations due to Covid-19 and our inability to take to the streets, we continue to celebrate him today.
Assistant Professor Zach Richer of UTM’s Sociology department thinks that one of the best ways to celebrate this day is by reflecting upon his work. “It is an opportunity for people to revisit some of his ideas and quotes circulating online, and for discussions to be held to reappreciate Dr. King’s legacy and what he fought for.”
Arguably, the most famous speech he delivered was “I have a dream” in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. This speech, in which Dr. King called for an end to racial injustice, is regarded as one of the most resonant speeches in American history. In his speech, Dr. King says, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!” He dreamt of freedom and equality for all. Dr. King fought unremittingly to end discrimination.
At the time, slavery was abolished, yet Black people still suffered from inequality and racism as a result of segregation laws. Dr. King realized that the situation was emergent, and it was time to fight for equal rights for all. Dr. King helped society progress and his efforts significantly shaped the fight against inequality. Today, the same struggles for racial justice persist, most notably seen this summer with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Professor Richer points out that “Dr. King was never satisfied with progress. He was always pushing for change, and yet, he was never pessimistic or cynical, which was also a remarkable quality of his. He knew that his life’s work would exceed his lifespan.” Dr. King knew that it was critical to focus on long-term change and to strive for true equality.
When asked what one of his favorite written works by Dr. King is, Professor Richer states one of them is “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written on April 16, 1963. Dr. King was sent to jail on April 12, 1963, after leading a non-violent protest in Alabama, which at the time was one of the most segregated states of America. Dr. King’s method for combatting injustice involved collecting facts, negotiations, self-purification, and direct action. One of the most inspiring quotes from this letter explains that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. King had a knack for skillfully using words in an impactful way that called to our morality consciousness. His efforts to combat racial inequality with non-violent resistance and powerful prose earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Professor Richer states, “It’s nice to reflect and realize that Dr. King, who was once viewed as a controversial figure is now celebrated for all the work he has done for humanity.” King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to a group of white religious leaders sympathetic to his cause but thought his non-violent civil disobedience methods were wrong. Through his letter, Dr. King explains why his methods were needed. People believed that he should have waited to protest as he was denied permission by the police officers, but he points out that “waiting is a form of condoning injustice.”
An equally inspiring lecture by Dr. King is titled “The Other America,” which he delivered on April 14, 1967, at Stanford University. This speech highlighted the pervasive inequalities we unrightfully allowed to happen. “There are two Americas,” said Dr. King, “One is beautiful for situation […] In this America, children grow up in the sunlight of opportunity. But there is another America. The other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into fatigue and despair. In this other America, men walk the streets in search of jobs that do not exist.”
This speech mirrors the current organization of society, especially in the U.S. We have seen non-violent protesters of the Black Lives Matter movement treated violently by the police. In contrast, Trump supporters, protesting violently at Capitol Hill in the middle of a global pandemic, visibly encouraged. An evident double standard exists, showing that there are still two Americas, two worlds. One in which people live peacefully and are appreciated for who they are, and in the other, inhabitants face prejudices and are given less opportunities. These populations suffer at the hands of racism, a disease that runs deep in the veins of many Americans.
To honour Dr. King, we must appreciate his work and use his teachings to inspire change. Professor Richer says that “we should try to expand the moral vision that we hold contemporarily informed by the kind of things that he was pushing for at that time and include some of his more robust visions into this celebration.” In fact, Professor Richer explores the evolution of civil activism in his course SOC329: Law & Social Movements.
The Black Lives Matter movement employs many of Dr. King’s methods of direct action, including non-violent civil disobedience, to transmit the same message of equality while making use of technological advancements such as social media. According to a report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project released in 2020, the BLM movement is at its core non-violent, with 93 per cent of BLM protests being non-violent.
Dr. King was an influential activist who inspired people through his mastery of language and courageous leadership skills. He appealed to our moral senses. Professor Richer adds that one remarkable quality of Dr. King’s was that “he [conveyed] his message in a way that resonated with people who were not currently on his side while making them feel included.” Professor Richer also believes that the BLM movement is “carrying forward that legacy” by using a minimalist manifesto that appeals to something clear and palpable to our moral consciousness.
Racism is a disease to our society. On the eve of his death, on April 3, 1968, Dr. King said, “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.” Dr. King went on to say that the three greatest evils are: racism, poverty, and war, which is still the case today. Covid-19 is not the only threat to humanity—racism is too. We must remember what Martin Luther King Jr. wisely taught us: To fight systemic racial injustice through engagement with non-violent protest. This starts with consciously and actively acknowledging that Black lives matter.