Around this time of year, many people pause to consider the true legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Some will conjure up his nearly endless wisdom-packed, insightful words as evidence of his greatness: “You can kill the dreamer but not the dream,” “The impossible just takes a little longer,” or perhaps the most prophetic of his words, uttered at the Mason Temple in Memphis 54 years ago, where he spoke on behalf of striking sanitation workers protesting their meager wages of $1.65 an hour and deplorable working conditions. It was there that he said: “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” He was assassinated the next day.
Indeed, civil rights, voters’ rights and workers’ rights are intertwined. Dr. King knew this and ultimately died fighting for equality and dignity in the workplace. As we celebrate his birth and prepare for February Black History Month commemorations, we must consider the obvious question: How far have we really come in turning Dr. King’s momentous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the National Mall into a reality? Some would say the answer is just as obvious as the question—not far enough. One newspaper headline sums it all up: “MLK family asks for no celebration until lawmakers pass voting rights legislation” (Amsterdam News, Jan. 11, 2022). And there have been many other telling insights. For example, during the April 3, 2018 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, an adorable little 9-year-old girl came to the mic, standing on a box to reach it. She was greeted with thunderous applause as an overflowing crowd waited to hear what she had to say. Little Yolanda King, standing in the very same spot her grandfather stood 54 years before, did not disappoint. Referring to her grandpa’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, she told the crowd that she had a dream of her own. She said: “This should be a gun-free world. PERIOD!” From the stage, she could see thousands of people, most of them not too much older than her. They carried signs reading “Enough Is Enough” and “Stop Killing Us.” Yolanda then went on to lead the crowd in the roaring chant: “Spread the word. Have you heard? All across the nation, we are going to be a great generation.” Later, in an interview on CNN, Yolanda was asked what her grandfather would have thought about other current protest movements such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Me Too” and “DACA.” She said her grandfather would be so amazed to see all these people coming together.
It is interesting to note that with all three major TV networks at the time (ABC, CBS and NBC) airing Dr. King’s speech, and although he was already a national figure by then, it was the first time many Americans—reportedly including President John F. Kennedy—had heard him deliver an entire speech. Kennedy was assassinated less than three months later, but his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would go on to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, marking the most significant advances in civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.
With so many challenges confronting us today—some new, others lingering for decades, from COVID to gun violence to voting rights, an analysis of Dr. King’s true legacy is made even more difficult to accurately define. But one theme seems to bind all his accomplishments together: an inspiration to ingrain in people the commitment to do what’s right when you’ve been wronged, and to draw upon the best instincts of each generation. Dr. King still brings people together. Yolanda was right. He’d be amazed at how many people—from so many different backgrounds—are tuned in and turned on to trying to make the impossible happen.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, has set the deadline date of Monday, January 17, when the nation observes Dr. King’s birthday, for the passage of the new voting rights protection legislation, The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act, both keys to fulfilling Dr. King’s magnificent legacy.
Gregory Floyd is president, Teamsters Local 237 and vice president at-large on the general board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.