Ninety-four years after his birth, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has become one of the country’s most respected historical figures. Americans nationwide celebrate his symbolic leading of the civil rights movement, his courage enduring jail and hardship, and his peerless rhetoric emphasizing our responsibility to our fellow people.
We recognize his genius and honor him with a statue on the National Mall, yet we too rarely consult him when thinking about our own times today. One reason is that popular portrayals of King paint him as inherently optimistic, so we assume he was focused solely on desegregating human hearts to bring about some colorblind dream that is still in the making: an approach insufficient to combat the still-persistent racism and rampant economic inequality that has in many ways only escalated since the 1960s.
His April 14, 1967 speech at Stanford University is an overlooked example of how King’s genius remains relevant today. King frequently appeared on the lecture circuit, traveling across the nation giving speeches. These engagements also provided needed funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which, like many social justice organizations throughout history, struggled to make ends meet. He was especially busy during this stretch of time: Stanford student government representative Charles Bell had initially invited King to speak on a Sunday, but King’s secretary Dora McDonald informed Bell that King’s Sundays for the next ten months were booked, thus he spoke on a Friday.
These engagements also gave King the opportunity to address current criticisms and challenge popular misconceptions to new audiences. Only ten days before, King had publicly denounced the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York, rupturing his already-strained relationship with President Lyndon Johnson and leading others to question whether he remained committed to the cause of civil rights. While he did not directly answer that question in “The Other America,” King states that despite the movement’s efforts the past decade that brought about notable successes such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act, he was not satisfied:
“But we must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It's more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine quality integrated education a reality.”
According to King, the primary reason this struggle was more difficult was because the proposals to guarantee true equality were less popular than abstract rights. While Americans got outraged when Birmingham police dogs attacked peaceful protesters in 1963, they, like many Americans today, didn’t think twice about what it means to live under the poverty line. And King recognized that racism’s true face was not a Ku Klux Klan mask but systemic policies that cast too many people of color as second-class citizens.
As he said in the speech:
“It is said on the Statue of Liberty that America is a home of exiles. It doesn't take us long to realize that America has been the home of its white exiles from Europe. But it has not evinced the same kind of maternal care and concern for its black exiles from Africa.”
Later in the speech, King recalled that on a recent plane flight, his travel partner wondered why he spent more effort protesting conditions rather than encouraging Black Americans “to lift themselves by their own bootstraps,” as other ethnic groups have. Rather than comment about individual character here, King hit back with the observation that other immigrants did not come to America’s shores in chains, concluding:
“It's one thing to say to people that you ought to lift yourself by your own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And the fact is that millions of Negroes, as a result of centuries of denial and neglect, have been left bootless and they find themselves impoverished aliens in this affluent society.”
And so the struggle continues. In our own polarized era, it is to the detriment of those who believe in equality to neglect King. He not only had a vision of the future, but he dedicated his too-brief life trying to make it into reality, picking up invaluable experience and insights along the way. More than just dreaming from a safe distance, King experienced the ugly faces of American life firsthand, including rampant police brutality, ubiquitous racism, and even violent encounters such as the bombing of his home and, of course, his tragic assassination in April 1968.
And we can do more than just honor how he, along with hundreds of thousands of courageous individuals back then, stood up and marched on city halls, sat-in on lunch counters, and sacrificed their time, money, energy, and some their very lives to make America a more equal country. After all, despite their significant successes, the mission of full equality was not accomplished, either in 1965 or in 2008.
So as we remember Dr. King today, we should consider what it means to continue his life’s work by addressing the rampant injustices that continues to define our nation and our world. And as we reflect, there are worse ways to start than by letting him speak for himself: to be inspired by his vision, challenged by his suggestions, and even informed from his mistakes.
David Lai is the assistant editor of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project at Stanford University.