A blueprint for change: Dr. King’s legacy 50 years later
This week — as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination — let us remember the full scale of his legacy. A legacy that extends well beyond his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and the fight for racial equality, but includes the idea that all Americans are inextricably linked in our struggle for freedom, equity and justice. He sought to unite Americans around grassroots anti-poverty efforts using only nonviolent resistance. But to remember Dr. King is not to recall an uncontroversial peacemaker who paved the way for civil rights. At his core and most effective, Dr. King was a disruptor who believed in the necessity of confrontational action in creating social justice and progressive change.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail King 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. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored… I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” He knew that he had to provoke a crisis in order to bend the powerful structures of inequality and racism.
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” he said. The gains of the Civil Rights Movement that King helped lead saw the end to legal segregation and the granting of voting rights to African-Americans. The achievements of 1964 and 1965 weren’t a given. These victories were won because we, the people, demanded it.
Dr. King gave us a blueprint for effective movement building that has moved progress forward for generations of Americans, young and old.
Yet not unlike Dr. King’s time, the American people are at the crossroads of yet another crisis. Unfortunately, it’s one that we’ve seen before. Nearly five decades later, inequality remains a persistent problem. Recent data shows that black and white families are separated by more than $247,000 in average wealth. Unemployment for black Americans is more than double the rate for white folks in this country. Our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico still lack electricity and adequate medical care after the devastating hurricane over six months ago. The effect of this inequality can and does have lingering effects on our everyday lives. Under-resourced schools impact our children’s ability to learn. Wage disparities prevent hardworking families from purchasing homes and raising enough capital to kickstart a small business. In the wealthiest country on earth, black mothers are three times more likely to die during childbirth than white mothers. Blacks and Latinos are still overwhelmingly overrepresented in the criminal justice system and underrepresented in government, medicine, and business. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight series highlighted how severe these differences are within the city of Boston and quite frankly, too many families are being left behind.
These inequities didn’t happen spontaneously. They were created and preserved through consciously discriminatory and irresponsible lawmaking.
We are living in a society that promises a ladder of opportunity for all in the pursuit of the American dream. We cannot afford to wait another 50 years. These times, right now, require intentional leadership and advocacy.
In 1963, King marched with over 200,000 Americans to Washington DC in support of jobs and freedom. With his outspoken nature, he raised awareness, defined problems, and, most importantly, built diverse and cooperative coalitions that worked towards a common vision. In doing so, he created a blueprint for change that led our country through the longest-stretch of civil rights’ victories in our history. Their vision continues to take shape every day.
It has taken shape at the ballot box when, in 2008, 70 million Americans said #YesWeCan.
It has taken shape on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri when hundreds of young #BlackLivesMatter activists called for comprehensive police reform.
It has taken shape locally in Boston, as Monica Cannon-Grant and Angelina Camacho led over 40,000 marchers from Roxbury to the Boston Common in protest against the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
It has taken shape on the sidelines at football games when athletes called for justice by taking a knee.
It has taken shape before our eyes as students inspired by the Parkland shooting and ongoing community violence, organized the biggest single-day demonstration since the civil rights era in the March for Our Lives.
And it continues to take shape today as the City of Boston grapples with a decision to rename Yawkey Way — a name bestowed upon the Fenway Park area by a former owner with a racist and discriminatory past.
Dr. King knew that marches and boycotts alone were insufficient in delivering the masses from the burden of injustice and poverty.
His blueprint in moving us forward requires that we march, mobilize, and legislate for a more just and fair America.
Ayanna Pressley is an at-Large Boston City Councilor.