As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches on January 17, we must remember his dream that one day people of every race would be treated as equals. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, he famously urges his listeners to fight for their equality with peaceful protest rather than with violence.
Despite the fact that this speech was delivered over half a century ago, in 1963, and was one of the most poignant and influential moments in U.S. history, his dream of racial equality has yet to be fulfilled. To ask for the idea of racial equality to be upheld is not an exorbitant demand; the current state of our nation, however, suggests that this demand may have required more than King expected.
Though MLK Day is recognized as a federal holiday, Robert E. Lee Day is recognized as a state holiday in several southern states. The precise date of this holiday varies by state but often falls on the third Monday of January each year, as does MLK Day. Lawmakers’ justification for this dual holiday is the inconvenience of having two separate holidays in January. In Alabama in particular, the celebration of Lee is even grander than that of King.
The antithesis of these two historical figures is notable, with one being a former Confederate general who fought for the rights of white slave owners to own Black people and the other being a civil rights leader who lobbied tirelessly for equal rights. The celebration of a man who owned almost 200 slaves, who fought against our nation’s foundations of racial equality and who was indicted for treason for attempting to divide the country, is disgusting, especially when it is seemingly designed to undermine the celebration of his exact opposite.
Even if Robert E. Lee Day were celebrated on a different date than MLK Day, it would remain a major issue. Its celebration exemplifies how the Confederacy has remained an influential and revered part of history for many Americans. The Confederacy’s persistence is further displayed in the many United States citizens who still proudly wave the Confederate flag today. While those who fly this flag may justify it on the grounds of Southern pride, it undoubtedly still carries the weight of racism and white supremacy. The continuing veneration of the Confederacy is just one of many examples of the racial inequality that still pervades our nation today.
While Dr. King proudly advocated for rooting out racism, many people seem to have forgotten MLK’s message of the virtues of peaceful protest. While the vast majority, 93%, of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful, the other 7% resulted in nine people dying and over $1 billion of property damage. However, it is arguable that these violent riots are truly what opened the eyes of many.
It’s easy to view this violence as an unacceptable repudiation of MLK’s message, a betrayal of the ideals that inspired the Civil Rights Act in favor of senseless violence. However, to hold this view would be to ignore the observations, and consequent changes of belief, that King made later in life. Toward the end of his lifetime, King’s popularity waned. He was abandoned by many of his white, moderate supporters and expressed the fear that white moderates might be a greater enemy to him than radicals due to their desire for order. These were the same individuals that King excoriated in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” for preferring an “absence of tension” to the “presence of justice.”
This attitude explains a speech he gave right here in Michigan just three weeks before his assassination, titled “The Other America.” In this speech, he denounces the lack of improvements in standard of living for Black Americans in the previous years, despite gaining greater legal rights, and seemingly addresses those who would denounce riots as antithetical to his vision with the phrase “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Essentially, while he finds it regrettable that riots continue to occur, he recognizes that to condemn them without first eliminating the injustice that causes them is hypocritical and ultimately futile.
It seems that the day King dreamed of was further off than he may have thought, and, even if conditions had changed radically in the months following this speech, his assassination a short time later means that he would never have been able to see it. The fact that nearly 54 years later his dream has still not been fulfilled has led many to lose hope. This is a mistake. Our generation is more socially aware than any generation thus far. While we may not have the capacity to change the current state of affairs right now, we do have the power to teach our children the ideals of racial equality. Our children can then pass these values to their own children. This will eventually lead us to a permanent escape from the society of inequality we live in; we may even see this change during our lifetime.
The issue of racial inequality is wide ranging and multifaceted, so much so that I have barely scraped the surface of it. Rather than taking the day off of classes to relax on Jan. 17, I encourage you to really think about why we have this day off. Reread King’s most famous speech, “I Have A Dream,” and appreciate not only his rhetoric but the goal he had in mind.
After taking time to understand his message, I ask that you consider how you will spread it. At any instance of injustice, we cannot hesitate to speak up, we must take efforts in extending this message to our friends, family and other relations.
Our generation, especially Michigan’s leaders and best, has the capacity to make King’s dream come true. In doing this, we are making the dream of millions of other oppressed people come true as well. When this day finally comes, I am sure Martin Luther King Jr. will be smiling from afar.
Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.