Remembering the Real Dr. King

August 26, 2011
Guest Post

This post is part of an ACSblog symposium in honor of the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. The author, Theodore M. Shaw, is of counsel at Fulbright & Jaworski, a professor at Columbia Law School, and an American Constitution Society Board Member. He was director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund between 2004 and 2008.


On August 28, 2011, forty-eight years to the day Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial his famed speech known for its “I have a dream” refrain, Americans are honoring him with a statue on the National Mall. Already honored with a national holiday, King will be forever enshrined with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln on some of our nation’s most hallowed ground. This high honor is a special point of pride for black Americans, given Dr. King’s role in the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties, and his stature as a martyr in the struggle for racial and economic justice.  

For most Americans, King’s iconic status has grown over the years to the point that it obscures the realities of who he was, and for what he stood. In spite of his many admirers, King did not enjoy universal support during his lifetime. Now that he is safely dead, his legacy is often misappropriated by those who were or who would be opposed to his life’s work. Ideological conservatives opposed to affirmative action in higher education and voluntary elementary and secondary school desegregation have shamelessly and dishonestly distorted his legacy and invoked his name in support of their agenda. For many, his hopeful vision of an America in which his children would no longer be ”judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” means an adherence to a kind of color-blindness that would block all efforts targeted at helping African Americans. For them, color-blindness is the sum total of all he said and did. Yet King’s dream was not of a simplistic color-blindness; he was a strong advocate of affirmative action and supporter of school desegregation. While King’s powerfully eloquent articulation of his dream for America has resounded over the decades since the August, 1963 March on Washington, he said and stood for so much more.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was no idle dreamer. King posed a radical challenge to racism, poverty and economic injustice, and militarism in this country. His message was presented nonviolently, but it was nonetheless revolutionary. By the end of his life King had gone beyond the struggle for racial justice; he recognized the necessity of working for economic justice. He knew that centuries of slavery and Jim Crow had created intergenerational and structural inequality that could not be addressed by merely ending the most crude and obvious forms of discrimination against individuals on the basis of race. He understood that, standing by itself, the fact that black Americans who had been legally enslaved, subordinated and impoverished by white supremacy imposed over 350 years henceforth would be treated on a nondiscriminatory basis hardly qualified as racial justice.

Whatever those who have sought to hijack his legacy may say, the real Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been dismayed at the recent Pew research that showed black American families in 2011 with net wealth twenty times less than that of their white counterparts. The real Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have assigned these disparities to unknown and unknowable causes beyond the reach of law and social policy, or comforted himself with the shibboleth that the link between centuries of governmental and private actors’ policies and practices, and contemporary racial and economic inequality, has been broken. He would have been a fierce critic of our Nation’s systems of public schools, in which racial segregation, although no longer mandated by law is, in many places, as severe as it was in the days of Jim Crow. He would lament the fact that the federal courts are content to have ended de jure discrimination even while they have turned their backs on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education by endorsing a jurisprudence that sanctions racially separate and financially unequal education.

To be sure, Dr. King would marvel at the progress many black Americans have made educationally, economically, and politically. He would scarcely believe that the United States elected an African American President, and he would marvel at the wonder that is America. But just as he would be concerned about the gap between black and white wealth in 2011, he would harshly critique the wealth gap between white and Hispanic Americans, the continued plight of Native Americans and the growing wealth distribution chasm that threatens to tear the social fabric for all Americans.

 Dr. King is no longer with us. The thirty foot tall statue in his honor on the national mall is a testament to the fact that he belongs to the ages. In this time of continuing racial and growing economic inequality the dedication of this national monument to this great American should be a moment of rededication to the work that this generation and those to come must do if the principles of equality to which we aspire are to be realized. We would do well to abide by the admonishment I heard a friend, freedom fighter, and founding father of the new South Africa give to his fellow citizens: “If you want your dreams to come true, don’t sleep.”