John Whitehead's Commentary
What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Ask Martin Luther King Jr.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?—Langston Hughes, “Harlem”
Martin Luther King Jr. could tell you what happens to dreams deferred. They explode.
As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, more than 50 years after King was assassinated, his dream of a world without racism, militarism and materialism remains a distant dream.
Indeed, the reality we must contend with is far different from King’s dream for the future: America has become a ticking time bomb of racial unrest and injustice, police militarization, surveillance, government corruption and ineptitude, the blowblack from a battlefield mindset and endless wars abroad, and a growing economic inequality between the haves and have nots.
King’s own legacy has suffered in the process.
The image of the hard-talking, charismatic leader, voice of authority, and militant, nonviolent activist minister/peace warrior who staged sit-ins, boycotts and marches and lived through police attack dogs, water cannons and jail cells has been so watered down that younger generations recognize his face but know very little about his message.
Rubbing salt in the wound, while those claiming to honor King’s legacy pay lip service to his life and the causes for which he died, they have done little to combat the evils about which King spoke and opposed so passionately: injustice, war, racism and economic inequality.
For instance, President Obama speaks frequently of King, but what has he done to bring about peace or combat the racial injustices that continue to be meted out to young black Americans by the police state?
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump plans to “honor” Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by speaking at a convocation at Liberty University, but what has he done to combat economic injustice?
Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton will pay tribute to King’s legacy by taking part in Columbia, South Carolina’s King Day at the Dome event, but has she done anything to dispel her track record’s impression that “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are still considered more important than people”?
Unlike the politicians of our present day, King was a clear moral voice that cut through the fog of distortion. He spoke like a prophet and commanded that you listen. King dared to speak truth to the establishment and called for an end to oppression and racism. He raised his voice against the Vietnam War and challenged the military-industrial complex. And King didn’t just threaten boycotts and sit-ins for the sake of photo ops and media headlines. Rather, he carefully planned and staged them to great effect.
The following key principles formed the backbone of Rev. King’s life and work. King spoke of them incessantly, in every sermon he preached, every speech he delivered and every article he wrote. They are the lessons we failed to learn and, in failing to do so, we have set ourselves up for a future in which a militarized surveillance state is poised to eradicate freedom.
Practice militant non-violence, resist militarism and put an end to war.
“I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”—Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon at New York’s Riverside Church (April 4, 1967)
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his murder, King used the power of his pulpit to condemn the U.S. for “using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted.” King called on the U.S. to end all bombing in Vietnam, declare a unilateral cease-fire, curtail its military buildup, and set a date for troop withdrawals. In that same sermon, King warned that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Fifty-some years later, America’s military empire has been expanded at great cost to the nation, with the White House leading the charge. Indeed, in his recent State of the Union address, President Obama bragged that the U.S. spends more on its military than the next eight nations combined. Mind you, the money spent on wars abroad, weapons and military personnel is money that is not being spent on education, poverty and disease.
Stand against injustice.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”― Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963)
Arrested and jailed for taking part in a nonviolent protest against racial segregation in Birmingham, Ala., King used his time behind bars to respond to Alabama clergymen who criticized his methods of civil disobedience and suggested that the courts were the only legitimate means for enacting change. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” makes the case for disobeying unjust laws when they are “out of harmony with the moral law.”
Fifty-some years later, we are being bombarded with unjust laws at both the national and state levels, from laws authorizing the military to indefinitely detain American citizens and allowing the NSA to spy on American citizens to laws making it illegal to protest near an elected official or in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. As King warned, “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”
Work to end poverty. Prioritize people over corporations.
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” —Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon at New York’s Riverside Church (April 4, 1967)
Especially in the latter part of his life, King was unflinching in his determination to hold Americans accountable to alleviating the suffering of the poor, going so far as to call for a march on Washington, DC, to pressure Congress to pass an Economic Bill of Rights.
Fifty-some years later, a monied, oligarchic elite calls the shots in Washington, while militarized police and the surveillance sector keep the masses under control. With roughly 23 lobbyists per Congressman, corporate greed largely dictates what happens in the nation’s capital, enabling our so-called elected representatives to grow richer and the people poorer. One can only imagine what King would have said about a nation whose political processes, everything from elections to legislation, are driven by war chests and corporate benefactors rather than the needs and desires of the citizenry.
Stand up for what is right, rather than what is politically expedient.
“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”—Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon at National Cathedral (March 31, 1968)
Five days before his assassination, King delivered a sermon at National Cathedral in Washington, DC, in which he noted that “one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”
Freedom, human dignity, brotherhood, spirituality, peace, justice, equality, putting an end to war and poverty: these are just a few of the big themes that shaped King’s life and his activism. As King recognized, there is much to be done if we are to make this world a better place, and we cannot afford to play politics when so much hangs in the balance.
It’s time to wake up, America.
To quote my hero: “[O]ur very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.”