Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have celebrated his 89th birthday on Monday. This year, the federal holiday in his honor, which takes place every third Monday of January, falls on his actual birthday, January 15.
And since April will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s death, it is worth remembering, now more than ever, how he lived.
President Donald Trump’s symbolic affirmation of the King holiday on Friday came amid global condemnation for his disparaging and racially inflammatory statements regarding Haitians and Africans the day before.
Trump’s public praise of King is belied not only by his private words but also by his deeds. King is not widely remembered as a policy expert, but he should be. Federal civil rights, voting rights and open housing legislation all passed, in part, through the pressure he brought to bear on Congress, presidents and wider democratic institutions.
Indeed, Trump’s latest burst of rhetorical violence against non-whites serves as an important reminder of the work that needs to be done in order to fulfill King’s dream of a “beloved community” free of racial oppression, economic injustice and war. The King holiday offers a moment for the nation to reflect on the meaning of American democracy, citizenship and justice.
In 1968, King celebrated his birthday against a climate of political tension, racial strife and economic injustice strikingly familiar to our own time. King – then the world’s leading social justice mobilizer – tapped into grassroots anti-poverty efforts to help organize a “Poor People’s Campaign” and stage a “camp-in” in the nation’s capital. Its aim was to push Congress to pass meaningful anti-poverty legislation.
King’s adversary-turned-ally Bobby Kennedy approved of these plans, telling Marian Wright Edelman (the future founder of the Children’s Defense Fund) to bring the poor to Washington so that the nation could see the truth about poverty with their own eyes.
King recognized economic justice as an issue capable of binding together disparate groups toward a unified movement for radical democracy, one that could lift up farm workers in California, rural whites in Appalachia, sharecroppers in Mississippi, Native Americans living on reservations and urban residents confined to ghettoes. Today, the Trump administration’s efforts to institute work requirements for Medicaid recipients stands in stark contrast to King’s efforts toward economic justice, which promoted a guaranteed income for the poor, health care, jobs, education and an end to racial segregation in housing and public schools.
King’s plans to coordinate a caravan of the poor, representing the nation’s multi-cultural and multi-racial makeup, found natural allies among Latino farm workers, Native Americans, poor whites and mothers on welfare who schooled him on the intricacies of federal policy in ways that humbled and enlightened him.
Throughout the early part of 1968, King traveled across the nation, delivering speeches against racial and economic injustice. The descriptions of hunger and want from black residents in Marks, Mississippi, moved King to tears – so much so that he decided to headquarter the caravan destined for Washington in what he characterized as “the poorest county in the United States.”
King imagined democracy as a living, breathing organism imperiled by the sickness of racism and the disease of poverty. He diverted precious energies from his plans to spend the summer in Washington to travel several times to Memphis, where he spoke in support of over 1,000 black garbage workers on strike for a living wage. He did not live to see the conclusion of the strike or spend time in “Resurrection City,” the tent village that survived for two months in the nation’s capital.
Undoubtedly, King would have been deeply disappointed by Trump’s disparaging remarks against Haitians, immigrants and Muslims. King’s extensive travels to India, Africa and Europe imbued in him a cosmopolitan sense of humanity he called “the world house.”
For King, the concept of a “world house” moved beyond an ethnic- and tribal-based understanding of the international community toward an ethic of mutuality and interdependence. He believed that like a butterfly effect, what happened in the smallest corner of the world impacted the rest of humanity for good or ill.
Accordingly, King forged political alliances through personal connections. He argued that humanity’s fate remained interwoven in a broader political and spiritual tapestry than widely acknowledged.
The most ironic part of King’s legacy is that his holiday was signed into law on November 2, 1983, through bipartisan efforts by President Ronald Reagan, an eloquent conservative figure who publicly admitted to having disagreements with the civil rights leader.
The holiday did more than simply recognize King’s individual accomplishments. It celebrated the civil rights movement’s successful inclusion of the idea of racial justice and human rights as fundamental principles of American democracy.
But the holiday has also allowed us to hide from ourselves. King might not recognize himself in the uncomplicated, even timid, figure that much of the nation and the world celebrate today. The risk-taking King who defied presidents to protest war is often missing in our popular memory of him.
We must not forget the radical King, who marched shoulder to shoulder with garbage workers, locked arms with Black Power militants and lived in Chicago ghettoes in an effort to stimulate social change. And yet, the revolutionary King who proclaimed that America’s greatness remained in “the right to protest for right” has all but vanished from public memory, replaced by generic platitudes about freedom and justice that can be claimed by anyone.
Through non-violent civil disobedience, King leveraged social-justice transformation in American civil society even when institutions, including the church, largely disagreed. King longed to change hearts, minds, public policy and laws, too. He viewed the political as personal and believed the reverse true as well, offering moral and political witness for reimagining an American democracy as a beacon, especially for groups left out of its original conception.
King’s legacy will endure long past the Age of Trump. More importantly, it reminds us all that American power resides not in any fantasies of exceptionalism but in the souls of millions of ordinary people who risked their lives to reimagine the contours of freedom, democracy and citizenship.
King’s revolutionary life, fearless love of the poor and wretched and uncompromising stance against war and violence offer hope for a better future. His life also provides a framework for resistance against rising levels of inhumanity, racism and injustice that he would find all too familiar today.