What would Dr. King say to us today? We have a tendency to sanitize his memory, to remember the Dr. King who fought the evil of state-mandated segregation, the Dr. King who marched on Washington in 1963, the Dr. King with whom all Americans say they (now) agree. But there was another Dr. King – always and steadfastly committed to nonviolence as the way forward, but one who made America uncomfortable, one who opposed the war in Vietnam, one who took the movement north, one who said civil rights mean little if they don't lead to decent jobs and a decent income. That was the Dr. King Vincent Harding called an "inconvenient hero."
We need to remember and heed the Dr. King who said, "Our only hope . . .lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit [of America] and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism." We need to remember and heed the Dr. King who said, "The dispossessed of our nation – the poor, both white and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of . . . their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means . . . to lift the load of poverty."
The Dr. King who spoke those words stirred enmity that was much less broad when "all" he wanted was to get people served at lunch counters in Woolworths.
He was taken from us forty years ago. That is a period of biblical significance. The Jews wandered in the desert for forty years before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land. We may not be about to enter the Promised Land, but this is a new time. This is a time of hope and a time of possibility. A new beginning is just around the corner.
There will be change. Change happens whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not. But will we change for the better or the worse?
Dr. King would not be happy with the state of our world today. Of course he would see the progress we have made in some important areas. But he would be shocked that from 1968 to 2005 CEO compensation went from being 24 times the pay of the average worker to 262 times that amount, He would be aghast that the wealth of the top 1 percent of the population went from 1500 times the wealth of the bottom 40 percent in 1983 to a multiple of 4400 by 2001. He would be outraged that we still have almost 37 million people living in poverty in the United States and that widespread and deep poverty is still entrenched throughout the world.
And what would he say about a nation that continues to sit by while lives remain shattered from a hurricane that happened well over two years ago? What would he think about a world in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people, women and children especially, in Iraq and Darfur and Afghanistan, are still dying and being maimed by bombs and mines and men on horseback who take lives and limbs at random and with unfathomable hatred and venom? How would he react to a world where peace and justice are still so far from reach?
When it comes to race, Dr. King would be especially appalled by the structural divide that has developed in the African-American community. The increased number of African-Americans who have prospered is a fact to be celebrated, but the increasingly intractable number stuck in poverty is a disaster of enormous magnitude. In the 1990s, when nearly everyone in the country did better, the percentage of African-American young men with less than a high school education who had jobs fell from 59 percent —already a low number —to 52 percent, and this number did not count those in prison. This is truly a national crisis. We are losing successive generations of young men, and too many young women as well.
To change all of this we need people power and we need leadership. That's how we will get the change we need. There needs to be a movement – a strong and continuing demand for major change.
But there is a dilemma, because we also need an end to polarization. We need healing. We need to bring America together.
We need both an energetic politics of peace and justice and an equal dedication to the politics of healing and reconciliation. Figuring out how to be true to both is a challenge that is totally in the character and spirit of Dr. King.
We cannot bring Dr. King back, but we can take up his challenge to end racism, militarism, and materialism. And we must do it by healing, awakening, and moving forward.
As his dear friend, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said: "We are not all guilty, but we are all responsible."
Peter Edelman is a lawyer, policy maker, and law professor at Georgetown University Law Center.