- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

Approaching the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s martyrdom on April 4, 1968, many people seek to speak authoritatively about what his focus would be today. Some forget that President Johnson, the FBI, national media and conservative religious leaders maligned Dr. King during the last years of his life. When Dr. King was alive, they were not holding parades, naming streets for him or aligning with the civil-rights struggle. Far from the iconic image of Dr. King today, the stark reality remains that Dr. King was killed by an assassin’s bullet in the ultimate act of hate.

Working with Dr. King for the last years of his life, and identifying the focus of his work on April 4, 1968, points my mind to where his contemporary nexus would be. Traveling from Chicago, I met up with Dr. King in Memphis, along with Andy Young, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams and Gary Massoni. Their flight had been delayed by a bomb scare. We had no knowledge of the constant pressures he faced and the invidious dirty tricks the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover used to discredit him and the movement.

At the urging of James Lawson, we were in Memphis supporting sanitation workers striking for a union and trying to improve their oppressive working conditions. Memphis was to be a short detour en route to the Poor People’s Campaign to dramatize the war on poverty in the nation’s capital later that summer. Earlier that year on his birthday in January, Dr. King had brought together a “rainbow coalition” — blacks from the South, Al Lowenstein and Jewish allies in New York, poor whites from Appalachia and Latinos fighting for farmworker rights — to plan the last major campaign of his life, the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington.

I remember vividly our moment at the Lorraine Motel, joshing with Doc, as we called Dr. King, as we prepared to go to dinner at the home of local leader Billy Kyles. Then that shot rang out. I rushed up to the balcony; we all pointed across the street where we heard the shot ring out. Ralph called out, “get down, get down.” In a moment, the world turned upside down.

The bullet killed the man but not the movement, or what we had accomplished. Dr. King and the civil-rights movement transformed a “conversation” into legislation about race — comprehensive legislation and other actions striking down centuries of legal racial segregation and discrimination: the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision; the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, validated by the 1956 Supreme Court decision; the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, the last landmark civil-rights legislation, on April 11, 1968, just a week after Dr. King’s assassination.

Dr. King and the civil- rights movement redefined American democracy. “Jeffersonian Democracy” contained the irreconcilable contradiction where slavery coexisted with “democracy.” But “King Democracy” — his quest for a more perfect union emanating from the marching feet in Selma, the sit-ins at bus counters, and the legislation in Congress — resulted in a more inclusive democracy now admired around the world.

Today, Dr. King would no doubt see Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as the beneficiaries of historical and ongoing civil-rights struggle. They are, in fact, conduits through which a better and more mature America is expressing itself — where Dr. King once fought for the right of blacks, Latinos, women and youth to vote, he would now rejoice in the prospect of the first African American or woman as president of the democracy he helped to forge.

He’d also be tackling today’s issues of injustice, many of which he was grappling with 40 years ago. He’d want to end the unjust war in Iraq and redirect the resources ($1 trillion) to fight today’s war on poverty.

(Just one year before his assassination, Dr. King delivered the Riverside Church speech in New York, declaring opposition to the Vietnam War and decrying the need to conquer the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”)

He’d be appalled that a failure to enforce fair housing laws has led to the predatory lending crisis now driving a global economic recession.He’d want us to have a multiracial coalition and learn to live together across the lines of fear.

He’d want to educate our youth, lift them up and not tear them down, to give each an opportunity to achieve and succeed in life.He’d want a criminal justice system that focuses on justice, not criminalization of our youth.

He’d want us to register and vote, and he’d demand that people previously disenfranchised be permitted to vote. He’d want us to have a sense of self-confidence, to end self-destruction and self-degradation, from drug and alcohol abuse to self-inflicted violence and homicide, to the name-calling of women and the perverse use of the “N” word. He would want us to have a love of God.

Most of all, he’d want us to complete the unfinished business of the civil-rights movement, moving from “freedom” to “Equanomics” — measurable economic equality in jobs, employment, education, entrepreneurship, and other life categories where inequality remains as true today as 40 years ago.

Dr. King was a dreamer who marched to a different beat. Like his fellow dreamers Gandhi and Mandela, he was a change agent. He marched to a different beat; he dreamed with his eyes wide open. He was a minority, with a majority vision.

Today we live in the wake of his dreams, his risks and his sacrifice, and have the power to fulfill Dr. King’s agenda. To lift our sights above fear, to lift the poor from the pits of poverty, to feed the hungry and heal the land. Were he alive today, the “drum major for justice” would be marching to fulfill the never-ending journey for full racial and economic equality. Long Live Dr. King!

The Rev. Jesse Jackson is founder and president of RainbowPUSH Coalition Inc.

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