James Carroll

King: ‘Now is the time to make real the promise’

By James Carroll
January 18, 2010

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THE GREAT Martin Luther King Jr. address of 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial is remembered as the “I have a dream’’ speech. But King spoke an even more compelling line that day: “When will you be satisfied?’’ It was the question that had so often been put to him and his fellow “devotees of Civil Rights,’’ and it carried the accusation that he was a malcontent - never happy with the incremental progress offered to black Americans, as if the shift from slavery to Jim Crow should have been enough. “No!’’ he answered.

King launched the civil rights movement, but was not satisfied - because he saw that racial discrimination was embedded in violence. Therefore he drew the link with the nation’s violence in Vietnam. He then brought together powerful movements opposing racism and war - but still he was not satisfied. He saw how the brew of racism and violence was essential to poverty, and he recast the movement again, launching the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. Yes, a class revolt, and it got him killed. “No! No! We are not satisfied!’’ he had declared in Washington, “And we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream!’’

If King were with us today, one imagines him speaking less of dreams and more of dissatisfaction. For starters, he might eschew the word “poor’’ in favor of “impoverished,’’ since poverty is not a natural state, but the result of social structures, policies, and market systems tilted to protect the privilege of a few at the expense of many. That’s more clear this year than ever. In the four decades since King’s murder, it is true that doors have opened to African-Americans, even including the door to the White House. Wouldn’t that leave him satisfied? But one hears the answer, “No! No!’’ And then that rolling cadence, the prophetic voice denouncing, say, the vast American prison population, disproportionately made up of young black males, most of whom are guilty not of violent acts, but of the crime of, well, being dissatisfied. Rather than educate or motivate such malcontents, and rather than address the conditions that condemn them to dissatisfaction, America would rather snatch them from the streets and lock them up.

Since King’s time, the free markets have gone global, and now vast populations of humans have been declared redundant. Having made connections between civil rights, domestic poverty, and US wars, King can be readily pictured today making further connections with the cast-aways abroad - the impoverished masses who have been declared superfluous by the world economy. The catastrophe of Haiti would be no mere symbol of global inequity to King. He was attuned to the real suffering of individual human beings, and would be part of the effort to alleviate it there. But would he be satisfied with the compassion of the moment? Moral sentiment unattached to structural analysis, and to changes in systemic causes of poverty, is worse than useless. The Haiti earthquake might be deemed an act of God, but King would rage at any characterization of the foundational Haitian plight that left out historical factors like slavery and colonialism, or the defining contemporary influence of the United States, which, across the years since King’s death, has, in relation to Haiti, defiled the meaning of neighbor.

What is the key to King’s greatness? It was his ferocious dissatisfaction that fueled his capacity to dream, and to articulate his dream in a way that made its fulfillment possible. Yes, King’s dream did come true when Barack Obama took the oath as president one year ago this week. But equally, King’s dream, even in coming true, continually fired his refusal to be satisfied. No! No! King would be a malcontent today: “When will you be satisfied?’’ And today, Haiti would define his answer. His burning unhappiness on behalf of that benighted nation would ignite his urgency and his action. “ Now is the time to make real the promises,’’ he said in Washington. “Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.’’ In nearby Haiti we glimpse the far distance that separates this world from justice. Now is the time to close it.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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