In the years since his assassination, I have been troubled by what I consider to be the co-opting of Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision. What has troubled me over the years is how his revolutionary message has been hijacked, compromised and relegated to being that of just a dreamer.
People are comfortable with dreamers. Why? Dreamers are safe and in a restful state. Dreamers are docile and easy to manipulate. To cast King in the light of a dreamer allows people to be convinced that substantive change resulting from clear vision and direct action is not necessary.
All too often, King "the dreamer" is taken out of the historical context within which he developed. The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the civil rights movement were not created in a vacuum. King and these events are a part of a historical continuum that began in August of 1619, when those first 20 and some odd African "indentured servants" disembarked from that Dutch Man-O-War in Jamestown, Va., and continues to this day.
King is part of the historical practice of slavery, Jim Crow, Black Codes and oppression. It is a narrative that has grown from Olaudah Equiano or "Gustavus Vassa, the African," born in 1745 in what is now southeastern Nigeria. He was enslaved at the age of 11 and sold to English slave traders who took him on the Middle Passage to the West Indies, where he eventually wound up a slave in Virginia.
King is a part of the freedom struggles of Harriet Tubman, who, when asked how many slaves she helped to free replied, "I'm not sure, but I would have freed a lot more if they had known they were slaves." He comes out of the legacy of Frederick Douglass, who told us, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
Only when you understand this historical context can you fully understand King's 1963 Letter From a Birmingham Jail, in which he wrote, "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue … Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily." That sounds a lot like Douglass' "power concedes nothing without a demand."
In his Letter, King also wrote, "One may want to ask: 'How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?' The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust … An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal."
The power of that analysis of just versus unjust laws has one level of resonance if you view it in the context of 1955 Montgomery, when King led the historic bus boycott, or 1963 Birmingham. It has another level of resonance in the context of the Supreme Court decisions in Dred Scott or Plessy. In Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, Chief Justice Taney told the country that "a negro has no rights that a white man is bound to respect." In Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 the court gave America sanctioned segregation. King's writings and actions must always be viewed as a struggle within a broader historical and ongoing struggle for human rights and social justice — not in the tiny vacuum of his particular space in time.
When one examines the ongoing struggle for human and civil rights in America, we look at certain historical events and the presidents who facilitated them. Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863; Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the New Deal, as well as Executive Order 8802 in 1941 banning racial discrimination in government employment and defense industries; and John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson with civil rights and voting rights legislation of the 1960s.
Each of these events came about through struggle. Strong individuals pushing for them and strong presidents willing to put their administrations, if not their lives, on the line to make them happen. It's something King wrote about in his Letter — the need for "nonviolent gadflies" to help society shake the patterns of racism and prejudice.
Lincoln's nonviolent gadfly was Douglass. In his famous speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" delivered in 1852, Douglass said, "I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common … Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? … There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him."
In the 1960s, Kennedy and Johnson's nonviolent gadfly was King himself. What gets lost in characterizing King as a "dreamer" or defining him by his "dream" is the clear understanding and appreciation of the horrific social, legal and cultural nightmare that African Americans were living through in 1963 when he delivered the famous address.
The best way to pay tribute to King and his total sacrifice is to understand what he stood for and what he died for. We must keep him in context. We must wake up from the dream and apply his vision in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of our much too recent past and to make today a better reality.
Dr. Wilmer Leon is the producer-host of the national talk radio show Inside the Issues With Wilmer Leon and a teaching associate in political science at Howard University. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.