MLK speaking from the center of a crowd


Waking from a Dream

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses group of Watts residents following the summer riots of 1965. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, LC-USZ62-115299

By Jonathan L. Walton

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
—1 Corinthians 13:11

There comes a time in everyone’s life when each of us must move beyond ignorance and innocence to a place of knowledge and responsibility. Though ignorance is bliss, ignorance is also infantile. It reflects a lack of awareness and maturity. Yet there are those in the highest places of power in the United States who seek to sustain and maintain this nation by keeping its citizens dumb, deaf, and blind to the true relations that are fueling our daily existence. There are those who have a vested interest in obscuring the difference between reality and a ruling ideal. An infantile mentality is fostered by those who find it more profitable to peddle myths and promote the opinions of plutocrats.

In 1983, many people who were part of the progressive freedom struggle of the twentieth century were skeptical when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a federal holiday. Though overjoyed that King’s importance was being recognized, activists were aware of the irony that this particular president, President Ronald Reagan, was the one to sign King’s birthday into law. After all, this was the president who kicked off his 1980 general election campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by declaring his commitment to “states’ rights” in the same community where civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered in 1964. This was the president who also contested federal civil rights legislation on the grounds that it was “humiliating” to the South.1 Reagan signed the law to honor King with one hand, while working to undercut the legislation that the civil rights movement helped to enact with the other. As Charles G. Adams said of this action, “Ronald Reagan understood that it is easier for America to honor and celebrate a dead icon than it is to heed the admonitions of a living prophet.”

Adams’s words were both prescient and prophetic. Our nation has witnessed a sanitization and sterilization of Martin Luther King Jr. over the course of the past three decades. Pay attention to the prevailing themes on any King holiday. Many have selectively framed King’s legacy within a successful bus boycott and the March on Washington. King’s contributions to American democracy have been reduced to an ephemeral dream. The courageous and nonviolent but purposefully confrontational King has had his powerful message transformed into an insubstantial “can we all just get along?” (à la Rodney King). We have placed Martin Luther King Jr. within the pantheon of American civic gods, but, in doing so, we have robbed him of his power to challenge us. With George Washington and his inability to tell a lie and Abraham Lincoln and his hand-built log cabin stands Martin Luther King Jr., the color-blind dreamer. As a result, within the popular imagination of America, King’s legacy has been deprived of its cultural potency and prophetic insight at a time when we need his wisdom more than ever.

I suggest that we need the wisdom of the Martin Luther King Jr. who, for all intents and purposes, was murdered in 1965. I am not confusing my history here. I am not speaking of that inauspicious Thursday evening in Memphis, April 4, 1968, when King was shot down in front of room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel. Rather, I am referring to the year when King decided no longer to be a bonsai tree, shaped and molded in the directions the white and black bourgeois establishments would have him grow.

Most King biographers and interpreters mark 1965 as the year that he moved beyond civil rights in the South to human rights, nationally and internationally. Moved by growing inequality across the country, King expanded his moral focus beyond desegregation to calling for a more just distribution of wealth in the United States. As a result, it was around this time that King was no longer perceived by those in power as a conciliatory moderate preacher, but as a national security risk.2

What impelled King’s shift? I would argue that, unlike the America that King loved and was deeply committed to, Martin Luther King Jr. matured. King’s mature moral and ethical framework would not allow him to turn a blind eye toward America’s inherent contradictions and moral failings or to remain willfully ignorant about a suffering humanity throughout the world. With maturity comes clarity and consistency.3

King was clear. From the earliest years of his ministry, King knew that he could not in good conscience call himself a minister of the gospel, one who is supposed to be concerned with the “least of these” in society, and yet sit back and watch the vast majority of God’s children—black, white, brown, yellow, and others—be exploited by America’s capitalist economy. In his words: “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of humanity and is not concerned with the economic conditions that damn the soul, the social conditions that corrupt, and the city governments that cripple them, is a dry, dead do-nothing religion.”4

King was consistent. How could he promote a philosophy of nonviolence in Montgomery, Selma, and Chicago, yet remain silent while guided missiles were being fired by misguided men engaged in a quagmire of a war overseas? King understood that he could never again raise his voice in good conscience against the violence of the underclasses in America’s ghettoes without having first condemned the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”5

As we celebrated the King federal holiday this year, many of us also celebrated the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama to a second term. Invariably, some of us got caught up in the euphoria and symbolism surrounding this nation’s first African American president. As President Obama was sworn in with King’s personal bible, T-shirts and signs appeared with pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. alongside President Barack Obama—as if the latter is a fulfillment of King’s vision for American peace, justice, and equality.

To be sure, I respect, support, and pray for President Obama, and I do not envy the moral and political challenges he faces each day. But to suggest that President Obama is in any way the fulfillment of King’s moral vision is to suggest that Martin Luther King Jr. was more concerned with racial representation than he was with a moral and ethical orientation toward economic justice, human rights, and global peace. Having an African American commander in chief may, for some sections of the dominant society, assuage feelings of racial guilt or serve as evidence of a “postracial America.” An image of President Obama as the fulfillment of King’s dream may also serve as a soothing fantasy for the African American middle and upper classes. Instead, all people of goodwill must wake up and get busy applying King’s moral vision in the contemporary moment.

President Obama’s election does not change the fact that the incomes of the richest 1 percent of this nation have grown 33 percent over the past twenty years, while the incomes of 90 percent of Americans have remained stagnant. Nor does his election change the fact that this nation continues to spend trillions of dollars to support a profitable and increasingly privatized military industrial complex, which includes an unprecedented “American kill list,” while the language of austerity and belt-tightening is used to describe programs that aid the most vulnerable citizens among us.

Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to see Wall Street and those of us with privilege and power held to a higher standard than America’s poor, not vice versa. We cannot speak of rising tides lifting all boats (as every president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama has done), but fail to acknowledge that more than 30 percent of the population do not have boats. This is particularly true when it seems our federal and state governments are increasingly willing to take away the life jackets of America’s most vulnerable in the name of fiscal responsibility.

As a nation, we need to stop honoring King with our lips and to begin incorporating King into our social philosophies and programmatic policies. We need to move beyond our puerile King-the-color-blind-dreamer rhetoric and mature to the point where we can accept King’s 1967 challenge for a revolution of values that he issued from the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church. This revolution of values, according to King, would move us from a “thing-oriented society to a person-oriented” society, for “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.”6

King speaks to us today. He challenges us to place service, sacrifice, and the forgoing of privilege at the center of what it means to live a good life, as opposed to defining eudaimonia (human flourishing) according to the accumulation of wealth, power, and luxury goods. History bears witness to King’s challenge. Was it not through the sacrifices and eschewing of privilege by abolitionists like Angelina and Sarah Grimké, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Bishop Richard Allen, and Absalom Jones that the Emancipation Proclamation took effect one hundred and fifty years ago? Was it not through the dedication, courage, and organizing acumen of Mary Fair Burks of the Montgomery Women’s Political Council, Jo Ann Robinson of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that the walls of legalized segregation were slowly broken down, until, finally, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

In the same way, it will only be when you and I step outside of our own insulated areas of comfort and convenience that we can begin to speak candidly, think creatively, and work cooperatively toward the cause of peace and justice in the contemporary moment. This is how we honor Martin Luther King Jr. This is how we extend his legacy. This is what it means for us to wake up from “the dream.” For, if we believe, as King did, that we are all inextricably woven into a common fabric of humanity and garment of destiny, then we should be able to sing with uplifted voices the words of the songwriter: “It’s no longer I, but it is you and me. No more them or they, but it is us and we. We can march onward to the victory. We are one in the Spirit of the Lord.”

There is too much work to do. It is time to wake up.


  1. Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (Public Affairs, 2000), 458.
  2. See Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68 (Simon & Schuster, 2006); Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America (Oxford University Press, 1995); Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (Free Press, 2000) and April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America (Basic Civitas Books, 2008).
  3. In King’s earliest writings and sermons, we see his concern for human rights and economic justice, but I am suggesting that his moral framework “matured” insofar as he was able to articulate and apply his moral principles within a national and international frame.
  4. Martin Luther King Jr., The Measure of a Man (Fortress Press, 1988), 14.
  5. Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard (Warner Books, 2001), 143.
  6. Ibid., 157–58.

Jonathan L. Walton is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University and Professor of Religion and Society at HDS. This is an edited version of the keynote address he delivered at the 43rd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast in Boston on January 21, 2013.

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