Where do we go from here?
I remember my elementary school classroom being brought to the library to watch “The Boy King,” a TV drama about young Martin Luther King, Jr. This was most likely in the years between the enacting of the federal holiday to celebrate MLK day and its observance in my home state.
The drama’s simple narrative of a young King encountering racism as a child and being moved to fight against segregation was well crafted for its young audience. It is also, however, a narrative that makes racism a question of personal attitudes and ignores the complex structural problems that intersect with racism to limit the potential of many people today.
After helping to secure the legislative gains in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, King increasingly turned his attention to those fundamental structural problems of housing, education, and health care that continue to plague American society now more than forty years after his assassination.
About three years ago, I was flipping through the channels on French television and came across a documentary on King and the Civil Rights Movement. Amidst the usual footage of civil rights marches and speeches, the video included footage from one of his speeches that struck me as decidedly different from the image of King presented to American audiences. In that speech, King states that the problems of poverty and unemployment in urban areas cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.
Today, as the problems commonly associated with the inner-city have become more generalized throughout society, perhaps a space has been opened for us to contemplate the musings of a more mature King. No matter what one makes of the goals and aims of the Occupy Wall Street protests that erupted this past fall, they were undeniably successful in turning attention to the most important fact of the last thirty years of American life, the enormous growth in income inequality.
As we consider King’s legacy, it seems to me that there is no more urgent question before us than deciding whether “Where do we go from here” is the path towards greater inequality or towards a system that serves the needs and interests of more than a privileged few.
Cedric Tolliver, Ph.D, is an assistant professor of English and may be reached at [email protected].