By Greg Shea
“We read one day, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Perhaps this article is late. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has already come and gone. However, I believe we cannot let King be relegated to one day a year of insulated, white-washed celebration. He was a person, a father, a radical political thinker, and a theologian. Let us honor him every day by correcting the record and defending the politics that he lived for.
Towards the end of his life, King had been forming a synthesis at the intersection of race and class, and the interrelation of foreign policy, U.S. imperialism, and domestic policy with the aforementioned. That is to say, he was fighting for racial justice in the form of desegregation and a share of institutional power. And, of course, fighting racism, both structural and systemic. But also, and often missing from our MLK day conversations, are his views on the interplay of class and race. King endeavored to build what was essentially a first of its kind multiracial workers’ and poor people’s coalition. The coalition focused on racial justice, economic-based human rights, and preventing endless wars and imperialism. King was an outspoken critic of the genocide enacted in Vietnam during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. By correcting the record, we honor King in all his pursuits and beliefs. It is not enough to cherry-pick and reduce him; he is deserving of recognition for his multifaceted quest for justice and equality.
Let us now pivot back to King’s best-known speech, “I Have a Dream,” delivered in 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A young Bernie Sanders was in attendance at the age of 22. Take a few steps back to 1961: Sanders transferred to the University of Chicago from Brooklyn College. Soon after, he and fellow students that were looking for housing discovered that off-campus, university-owned housing would not rent to black students. Sanders joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and played a leading role in a 15-day sit-in that resulted in the university upholding black students’ right to rent. After a merger of two groups, he later became president of both CORE and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He would continue to participate in these groups throughout his time as a student. Following his attendance at the March on Washington in ’63, Sanders was arrested in Chicago during a protest against school segregation and was charged with resisting arrest. Sanders was one of the thousands marching with MLK. His involvement with racial justice led him to march with King.
There is more than Sanders’ time with CORE and SNCC. Sanders was also an ardent detractor of the Vietnam War. He applied to be a conscientious objector in response to the draft and was a pacifist in college. Furthermore, when the U.S. backed the Contras in Nicaragua during the ‘80s, he continued his anti-war stance and backed the Sandinistas instead. Later, while in office in Vermont, he endorsed another civil rights activist, Jesse Jackson, during Jackson’s 1988 presidential bid. Jackson was attempting to build a base that aligned with MLK’s Poor People’s Coalition, the Rainbow Coalition.
Iowa is just around the corner. Honor MLK not only in name, but in joining the realization of his political vision. At least, make sure to keep the record straight.