Occupying America: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The American Dream, and the Challenge of Socio-Economic Inequality

Source: Trina Jones, Villanova Law Review, Vol. 57 no. 2, 2012

Each January, during our national commemorations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are reminded of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the freedom rides, the Birmingham campaign, the 1963 March on Washington, and the events in Selma. Little emphasis, however, is placed on Dr. King’s commitment, expressed most explicitly at the end of his life, to securing human and economic rights for all people–African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and poor Whites. Perhaps we omit the latter because we prefer to embrace the mythical, symbolic Dr. King we have created, the “gentle, nonviolent martyr for civil rights,” as opposed to the fierce freedom fighter that he was. Yet it bears remembering that Dr. King was a courageous man who was arrested dozens of times, who was stabbed by a mentally ill person, who was spied on by the FBI, and whose home was bombed. Despite these risks, he was outspoken and steadfast in his efforts to dismantle the racial hierarchy created by Jim Crow racism and the hierarchy of economic privilege created by an exploitative capitalist system. Perhaps we neglect the fullness and revolutionary nature of Dr. King’s legacy during our celebrations because in our “feel good” society we prefer to focus on past success and progress as opposed to the hard work that remains to be done….

… In some ways, the Occupy Wall Street protesters resemble the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s. Like them, the OWS protesters are mostly young–though some are older. They are also optimistic and are able to imagine this country as it ought to be, as opposed to as it is. Unfortunately, like the protesters of the 1960s, they have also been subject to crackdowns by law enforcement personnel and other governmental officials who are perhaps overly fearful and intolerant of civil unrest and disobedience. But while there may be similarities, in many ways, the OWS movement is different–and if not different, then curious–in at least two ways that merit greater reflection. …

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