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Weekend Read: We need King’s radical message as badly as we did in 1968.

On Monday we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King Day, the 33rd time our nation has officially honored this giant of American history.

But the figure we’ll honor seems to bear a little less resemblance to the real Dr. King with each passing year.

In speeches and commemorations, America will inevitably hold up the martyred leader of the nonviolent movement that toppled Jim Crow – the brilliant, charismatic pastor whose soaring rhetoric, typically laced with biblical metaphors, inspired millions of people across the globe to march for justice. 

King was all that. And he was much more.

To King, achieving racial justice was not as simple as enacting the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. It also meant ridding our world of economic injustice, a problem that racial discrimination only exacerbated. King knew that true economic justice required radical solutions – a deep commitment by the government to ensure full employment, a guaranteed annual income, universal health care, housing and education.

Toward these ends, King was in the midst of pivoting to the Poor People’s Campaign when he was struck down in 1968.

We don’t know what changes the Poor People’s Campaign might have brought to America if King had lived. But we do know that, in recent decades, the gap between the rich and poor has grown even wider, and economic security seems but a dream for millions of vulnerable people. And it’s painfully clear that racial injustice, too, is no relic of the past.

Last spring, we were in Memphis for the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination there. We saw “the very same racism and economic injustice that brought King to Memphis in 1968.” As we wrote at the time:

Today, we need King’s radical message just as badly as we did in 1968. But too often, we bathe his memory in a glow of nostalgia that threatens to relegate the injustices he fought to the past, as though the struggle is over.

“As long as we can be shot in our own backyards, as long as we’re on the lowest economic rung, as long as we’re the ones who fill up prisons, the struggle goes on,” said Memphis Pastor Bill Adkins from that infamous balcony.

Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries, who has worked with us on Teaching Tolerance initiatives, was even stronger:

“In life, King spoke inconvenient truths. But in death his life and deeds have been misinterpreted for the sake of creating a convenient hero. As long as black children go to sleep hungry at night, as long as black children are dying at the hands of police in our streets, we cannot afford the luxury of a convenient hero.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.