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Martin Luther King Jr. Understood U.S. Politics and How to Win Change

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What Four Essays Published by The Nation Magazine Can Teach Those Seeking Change in America

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Americans typically regard Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights leader who had a "dream." In the most basic terms, Martin Luther King Jr. believed in a "dream" that Americans could, through a large social movement for equality led by Negroes, rise up and live out the true meaning of a creed etched into the fabric of America: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." Yet, the "dream" did not end after August 28, 1963, when King delivered his most famous speech.

King had a vision of economic security for all Americans, not just cultural equality. He did not just want to shift the consciousness of white Americans enough so that brutal and unjust repression of Negroes would come to an end. He wanted all people to be protected from discrimination that might thwart long-term employment, to have food, clothing, education and stability essential for raising a family. He wanted jobs for all people that were not "substandard or evanescent." He urged massive nonviolent action in the years following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been won.

Today, however, Americans are under-educated or simply unaware of the full history of King. A surface understanding of King exists, an understanding non-threatening to ruling elites in Washington. That is why on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2009 a CNN poll found 69 percent of blacks thought King's vision had been fulfilled in the forty-five years since his "I Have a Dream Speech." That result, up from 34 percent in a similar poll taken in March 2008, reflected the widespread belief that the presidential election of Barack Obama "fulfilled" King's "dream."

Surface understandings of King are also why generals with the Pentagon are able to stand before the American people and propagandize King's history as a civil rights leader by lauding King and simultaneously whitewashing his opposition to American militarism, which he spoke out against during the Vietnam War, and claim King would have supported wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is why right wing pundits like Glenn Beck are able to hold "Restoring Honor" rallies to manipulate disturbed and frustrated Americans into believing they can learn something from King about how he believed in "states" rights," no taxation without representation and other talking points that have helped plant the seeds of proto-fascist movements in our nation's history.

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During the civil rights era in the 1960s, The Nation magazine had King publish annual reports on the struggle to win civil rights and equality for Negroes. It is in these essays that we gain a true glimpse into the political heart and mind of King. Within these essays is a distinct political philosophy. It is a philosophy if applied to today would ensure that the election of Barack Obama was not simply a symbolic election that signified a majority of the white power structure could now accept having an African-American in the White House.

In 1963, King wrote "A Bold Design for a New South." This essay called upon President John F. Kennedy to understand that the South was split, "fissured into two parts." One was ready for "extensive change," the other "adamantly opposed to any but the most trivial alterations." King pressed the Administration to "place its weight behind the dynamic South, encouraging and facilitating its progressive development." He believed this was the "moment for government to drive a wedge into the splitting South" and spread it open so that civil rights could be won in the South.

What stands out in this essay is King's talk of "tokenism."

The decline of civil rights as the Number One domestic issue was a direct consequence, I believe, of the rise and public acceptance of "tokenism." The American people have, not abandoned the quest for equal rights; rather, they have been persuaded to accept token victories as indicative of genuine and satisfactory progress"

" This is inevitable when sharply limited goals are set as objectives in place of substantial accomplishments. While merely 7 per cent of Negro children in the South attend integrated schools, the major battle of the year was over one Negro in a Mississippi university. Two thousand school districts remain segregated after nearly a decade of litigation based upon Supreme Court decisions"

" If tokenism were our goal, this Administration has adroitly moved us towards its accomplishment. But tokenism can now be seen not only as a useless goal, but as a genuine menace. It is a palliative which relieves emotional distress, but leaves the disease and its ravages unaffected. It tends to demobilize and relax the militant spirit which alone drives us forward to real change.

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King understood that "tokenism" could not bring economic security or the full emancipation of Negroes. King understood that small victories won through legislation or the enactment of laws could not be regarded as the end of struggle. For example, one might presume, if health reform had been a battle King was alive to help people wage today, he would not have let up after health reform was passed. He would still be taking nonviolent action to ensure that the industry did not gut the regulations that had progressives had manage to eke out of the legislative process.

Also, King would have been for expanding Medicare to cover all Americans. If achieved, his dream of economic security for all Americans, especially Negroes, would have been one step closer to achievement. He would not have fought for a "token" public option victory or the small consumer protections that the private insurance industry will likely manipulate to increase profits in the long term. That's because, as evidenced here, King understand the problem with setting limited goals was that your movement for change could fall short of correcting the injustice, which had pushed you to take action.

What King ultimately concludes is instructive:

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for

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