April 4 marks the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Forty years later, his dream has been remembered and commemorated. But in many ways, his mission has not yet been realized.
Dr. King always saw the struggle for civil rights has having several movements, like a symphony. There was the movement to end legal apartheid, to gain the right to ride on the bus, eat at the lunch counter, use the public library, attend the public school. That was followed by the struggle to gain the right to vote, which was achieved after the nation recoiled from the scenes of the Selma March.
Dr. King was struck down as he raised the bar. He was working on a poor people’s campaign. He was challenging the Vietnam War, and a nation spending far too much on violence and far too little on the poor. In Memphis, he was marching with striking sanitation workers, seeking decent wages.
Dr. King believed that this nation should change its priorities. That it should not squander precious lives and resources in wars distant from our shores. He believed that every person in this country should be guaranteed what Franklin Roosevelt called his economic bill of rights—the right to a job with a decent wage, the right to health care, to affordable education, to a secure retirement, plus the right to organize at the workplace, and to be free from discrimination or repression of basic human rights. We put these rights into the United Declaration on Human Rights, but we have not put them into practice in the United States.
Forty years later, Dr. King’s mission is still unfulfilled. Today, poverty and unemployment is on the rise. Much of the safety net has been shredded. Welfare has been repealed; unemployment insurance covers fewer workers for less time; low cost housing is scarce; the minimum wage has lost value; unions are on the defensive, representing less than 10% of the private workforce. Not surprisingly, we witness the extremes of inequality not seen since 1929, just prior to the Great Depression.
In his last speech, Dr. King talked about practical actions that could be done to move the cause forward. So forty years later, what practical things can be done to fulfill Dr. King’s mission?
First, everyone—particularly the young—should register and vote. It is a disgrace that so many sacrificed to win the right to vote that so many now do not bother to exercise.
Second, Dr. King urged everyone to be responsible. You can be born in the ghetto but not let the ghetto be born in you. This is teaching that is neither conservative nor liberal—it is simply right.
Third, Dr. King today would be challenging the misbegotten war in Iraq that is squandering lives and $12 billion a month in the midst of a civil war far from our shores. He would be calling for reinvesting in America, lifting the minimum wage, empowering workers, making college affordable, investing in first class education for the children of every class. He would be confronting the disgraceful discrimination that distorts our criminal justice system.
And he wouldn’t see these problems as someone else’s to solve. He would urge us to stand up, to make our voices heard, to organize. He was, he noted, a drum major for justice. He sought not money or elected office. He sought to empower people to stand on their own feet and exercise their rights, grasp their power. He was taken from us forty years ago at the age of 39. We best honor his sacrifice by taking up his cause.
Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. n can be contacted by e-mail at