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Reflections on King's Dreams
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April 2, 2010

Bill Moyers reflects on Martin Luther King Jr.'s dreams for America. You can revisit Dr. King's evolving theories of social and economic justice through the speeches below, including the speech given in Memphis just before his assassination.
  • The "I Have a Dream" Speech - by Martin Luther King Jr., August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. (audio)
    "In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men - yes, black men as well as white men - would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"

  • Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence - by Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City
    "I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: 'A time comes when silence is betrayal.' That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam."

  • The Other America - by Martin Luther King Jr., April 14, 1967 at the Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium
    "But we must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It's more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality."

  • "I've Been to the Mountaintop" - by Martin Luther King Jr., April 3, 1968 at Mason Temple, Memphis
    "Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."

BILL MOYERS: On this weekend 42 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — gunned down — in Memphis, Tennessee. Many of us still have the images etched in painful memory — Dr. King standing with colleagues on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the next day lying there mortally wounded, his aides pointing in the direction of the rifle shot.

Then we remember the crowds of mourners slowly moving through the streets of Atlanta on a hot sunny day, surrounding King's casket as it was carried on a mule-drawn farm wagon; and the riots that burned across the nation in the wake of his death; a stinging, misbegotten rebuke to his gospel of non-violence. We sanctify his memory now, we name streets and schools after him, we made his birthday a national holiday. But in April 1968, as Dr. King walked out on that motel balcony, his reputation was under assault. The glory days of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and the 1963 march on Washington were behind him, his Nobel Peace Prize already in the past.

A year before, he had spoken out — eloquently — against the war in Vietnam.

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: A time comes when silence is betrayal. And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

BILL MOYERS: He said money spent on the war should go for social programs... that angered many, including President Lyndon Johnson, some of his fellow civil rights leaders, and influential newspapers. The WASHINGTON POST charged that King had, quote, "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people."

With his popularity in decline, an exhausted, stressed and depressed Martin Luther King turned his attention to economic injustice. His March on Washington five years earlier, he said, had not been for civil rights alone but "For jobs and income, because we felt that the economic question was the most crucial that black people and poor people, generally, were confronting." So, in 1968, King was building what he called The Poor People's Campaign for better pay and affordable housing.

But he had to prove that he could still be an effective leader. And so he came to Memphis, in support of a strike by that city's African-American garbage men. Eleven hundred sanitation workers had walked off the job after two of them their ranks died in a tragic accident, crushed by a garbage truck's compactor. The garbage men were fed up — treated with contempt as they performed a filthy and unrewarding job, paid so badly that forty percent of them were on welfare, called "boy" by white supervisors. Their picket signs were simple and eloquent: "I am a man."

A few weeks into their strike, which had been met with opposition and violence, Dr. King arrived. He addressed a rally then returned to lead a march that ended in smashed windows, gunshots and tear gas. So now King came back to Memphis once more time to try to put things right and made the famous speech that would prove prophetic....

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

BILL MOYERS: The next night he was dead. Twelve days later, the strike was settled. The garbage men's union was recognized and the city of Memphis begrudgingly agreed to increase their pay, at first by ten cents a dime an hour...And later, an extra nickel.

That paltry sum would also be prophetic. All these decades later, little has changed when it comes to economic inequality... If anything, the recent economic meltdown and recession have made the injustice of poverty even more profound.

Unemployment among African-Americans is nearly double that of whites, according to the National Urban League's latest State of Black America Report. Black men and women in this country make 62 cents on the dollar earned by whites. Less than half of black and Hispanic families own homes and they are three times more likely to live below the poverty line.

Look at this report from the non-partisan group United for a Fair Economy. Martin Luther King, Jr. is on the cover. His dream is in jeopardy, the report says. "The great recession has pulled the plug on communities of color, draining jobs and homes at alarming rates while exacerbating persistent inequalities of wealth and income."

What has happened to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of economic justice?
Related Media:
Eyes on the Prize" AMERICAN EXPERIENCE reprises the landmark series on the Civil Rights Movement. (check local listings.)

The Kerner Commission 40 Years Later
THE JOURNAL looks at an update of the Kerner Commission Report, which blamed the violence on the devastating poverty and hopelessness endemic in the inner cities of the 1960s and includes an interview with former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, one of the last living members of the Kerner Commission. (March 28, 2008)

Melissa Harris Lacewell
Princeton's Melissa Harris-Lacewell on the trouble America has talking about race.(May 18, 2007)

James Cone
With the noose and the lynching tree entering the national discussion in the wake of recent news events, Bill Moyers interviews theologian James Cone about how these powerful images relate to the symbol of the cross and how they signify both tragedy and triumph. (November 23, 2007)

Moyers on LBJ and MLK
A Bill Moyers essay on Martin Luther King, Jr., LBJ, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (January 19, 2008)

Bill Moyers interviews Douglas Blackmon, the Atlanta bureau chief of the WALL STREET JOURNAL, about his latest book, SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME, which looks at an "age of neoslavery" that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II. (June 20, 2008)

References and Reading:
The King Center
Established in 1968 by Coretta Scott King, the King center is the official, living memorial dedicated to the advancement of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University
In 2005, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute was created to provide an institutional home for a broad range of activities illuminating the Nobel Peace laureate's life and the movements he inspired. The Institute's endowment supports programs that serve as an enduring link between Stanford's research resources and King's dream of global peace with social justice.

Martin Luther King and Economic Justice: The Fortieth Anniversary Commemoration of Dr. King's "The Other America" Speech at Stanford
Video and transcript of a Aurora forum at Stanford with Bernard LaFayette, Thomas F. Jackson and Mark Gonnerman.

TAVIS SMILEY: Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King View a number of interviews about Dr. King and his legacy.

The National Urban League: "The State of Black America"
In 2010, for the first time the State of Black America report, which measures disparities between blacks and whites in areas of economics, education, health, civic engagement and social justice, includes a Hispanic index. While they still lag behind, with an overall Equality Index of 75.5 percent, Hispanics are faring better than blacks, whose overall Equality Index was 71.8 percent.

United for a Fair Economy: "State of the Dream 2010: Drained"
"State of the Dream 2010: Drained" explores the current racial economic divide in the U.S. in terms of unemployment, income, poverty, net worth, and rate of foreclosures.

Also This Week:
In the months before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had expanded his focus on racial justice to include reducing economic inequality. On this week's 42nd anniversary of King's assassination, Bill Moyers sits down with attorneys Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander to discuss how far we've really come as a country, how poor and working class Americans have been falling behind and what America must do to fulfill Dr. King's vision.

Revisit Dr. King's evolving theories of social and economic justice through his speeches. Plus, a Bill Moyers essay.

The U.S. has five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners -- how did we get here?

Another study, THE SPIRIT LEVEL by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, shows that the US has the greatest income inequality among the major developed countries. Get the stats and read an interview with the authors.
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