Yet as important, perhaps more, this historic moment compels Americans to pause and to meditate on the fullness of Dr. King’s legacy: that of a man unafraid to lead, whose life was a fight in which “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” All Americans must work to be leaders like King—living memorials to his ideals—in our own lives and in our national mission.
We so urgently need to remember King’s vision today. In the United States, the gap between the rich and the poor has reached record highs since the Great Depression. The median net worth of black households, $13,450, is one-tenth that of white households. But if the numbers are bad, the situation in Washington is even worse. We find ourselves in a political situation which shreds the poor to entitle the rich. We have a president who—though he represents a fulfillment of one part of Dr. King’s magnificent dream—has been forced to ransom the country’s economy, and its promise, from a radical fringe that has exiled America’s sense of common purpose.
In the last year of his life, Dr. King mounted the “Poor People’s Campaign.” The campaign recognized that poverty and economic alienation, even more than race, was the unifying struggle of America’s huddled masses. King saw an increased need for “a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” It was an issue that demanded leadership. King claimed it, unafraid, though he knew it would put him in direct conflict with America’s political elites. He died before the fight had really begun.
It was a fight that only a leader like Dr. King could wage and win—a leader who could gain allies not by telling them what they wanted to hear or giving them something in return, but by speaking with a moral clarity that commanded assent. With millions of Americans unemployed, economic inequality on the rise, aid for the needy under threat, and the hopes of a bold economic recovery dimming, Americans are again in need of Dr. King’s style of uncompromising advocacy for America’s disenfranchised and economically vulnerable.
In life, King’s leadership was unifying; it transcended race. His willingness to go toe to toe with the likes of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bull Connor and George Wallace inspired anyone without political power, not just African Americans. Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, King was not at home in the halls of power, always preferring unsullied leadership to political gamesmanship. He seized and kept the moral high ground, calling out Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on issues ranging from civil rights to the war in Vietnam.