Last summer, I visited the Clayborn Temple AME Church in Memphis, Tenn. where Martin Luther King Jr. came to rally striking garbage workers at what would be the end of his life. The church had been the workers’ headquarters during the strike, which began after two of their number were accidentally crushed to death inside a garbage truck. The rest decided they’d had enough of being treated like the trash they handled. But the congregation has left since then and the church was closed — the walls overgrown by crawling vegetation, windows boarded up, the whole structure encircled by a chain-link fence.

Next door, the parking garage of the new downtown stadium turned its concrete back on the house of worship, flaunting a Toyota sign, one of the big companies without unionized workforces that helped make the old Confederacy a new center for auto production. Across the street on the other side of the church, empty lots baked in the sun where buildings once stood. I ate lunch on the grass outside with a local NAACP official who remembered King’s visit and its tragic conclusion. He said with regret that despite the demise of legal Jim Crow, things now aren’t much better for many people.

This past Sunday, I attended the service at New Bethel Baptist Church on Linwood Ave. in Detroit. New Bethel was the church of the Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin, and one of the greatest preachers of his generation. Today, New Bethel is still in its old home, and the sermons remain stunning. The church’s history room displays photos of Franklin marching with King and other civil rights leaders of the era. Outside, the scene is just as forlorn as Memphis, if not colder. Linwood’s businesses were devastated by the 1967 riots — or rebellion, if you prefer. In the decades since, the street has decayed further until only the odd party store and church remain to break the monotony of emptiness along its length.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is routinized in present society. It can be hard to imagine that simply declaring the day a federal holiday took decades of struggle. If we tune in at all, we often get pious calls for service: bloodless summons to the making of ill-defined differences, shorn of any relation to the deeper questions that animated King’s career. Even the University’s MLK Symposium theme this year, describing a “new generation of activism,” tends to wilt without specific attention to what this activism should affect.

Making the day meaningful, I would suggest, requires us to engage not only in celebration, but also in mourning, to recognize not merely the triumphs but the tragedies the American freedom struggle has experienced since King’s death. It demands we pay attention not just to podiums on glittering stages, but also to city streets from Memphis to Detroit, where the ghosts of the movement’s past hover uneasily over landscapes of profound loss.

As Detroit-born historian Kevin Boyle has observed, America is by and large a Christian nation, and King’s story has all too easily and conveniently been transfigured, as it were necessary, into the familiar story of Christ. King died for America’s sins, the story suggests, and with his blood, the stains of racism could be washed clean. All we now need is to believe in his ideals, or a subtly altered principle of “colorblindness”, to find our national salvation. Or so some would have us think.

Instead of faith in freedom from personal prejudice, I’d argue that it is through activism that we can most surely fulfill King’s dream. In contrast to the Christ analogy Boyle describes, this strategy assumes knowledge of the broader project of social reconstruction King sought to accomplish, and the ways in which we’ve fallen gravely short of the mark. Among activists, a frequent warning against negative campaigns notes that King chose to give an “I Have A Dream” speech, not an “I Have A Nightmare” speech. That is correct. Yet, we must also face the nightmares that still haunt us before we can resurrect the dream.

Joel Batterman can be reached at

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