Revisiting King’s Dream

This week will mark the anniversaries of two very important phenomena: today commemorates the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and tomorrow marks the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Significantly, both King and Roe v. Wade represent aspects of the civil rights manifold-one emphasizing the personhood of all humanity regardless of race and the other insisting upon one's right to choice despite gender.

Ironically, the battleground for civil rights based on race and gender remains under social and political occupation. Personhood is still selective and women continue to fight for the right to make their own choices, specifically with regard to reproduction. To be clear, there has been progress, however, not enough. Disturbingly, many still believe (women included) that women's reproductive organs are somehow public and political, not private or personal, matters.

On this note, I will submit that America still has much to learn from Dr. Kings "dream" which has yet to be fully realized. To be sure, King's "dream" was more than the hope for an ideal culture of nice where everyone gets along just for the hell of it. That's definitely not what I am talking about. And, let's be clear, King was nobody's feminist. In fact, it is well documented that King was considerably sexist and patriarchal. So, that's not what I mean either.

To be honest, if alive today I am not exactly sure where King would stand on the issue of reproductive rights. King was a dialectical thinker. Thus, he could be both pro life and choice concomitantly, taking what he needed from one side or the other and rejecting the rest, and thus forcing the rest of us to consider the possible "good" on all sides as well as the inconsistencies of our own positions. It is for this very reason that I think King's "dream" is still useful. However, to get at King's ideas beyond the sound bites, one must be willing to demystify King first.

So, forget holding hands with white people while singing "Kumbaya" (nothing against this, by the way-but this is NOT a means to an end) for a moment. This is a distortion of King's "dream." The demystification process necessitates a look at King's "unsanitized" "dream." The one that was radically complex and intensely biting. The one that provocatively challenged the status quo by holding America accountable for not living up to its democratic ideals of freedom, justice and equality for everyone-ideals which King himself had difficulty living up to in his personal life. The one that was never black and white or static.

King was a Personalist – distinguishing between moral laws and social codes, he believed (in theory at least) dignity, respect, choice, equality and subjectivity were the moral rights of all human beings. However, these rights were stymied by social codes, which led to all sorts of disparities, including but not limited to racial and economic injustice, which King argued were morally evil.

Thus, King's "dream" was a public censure of America's inconsistent and contradictory status quo, not a plea to overlook differences and disparities for the sake of avoiding conflict. His goal was not that of unaccountable justice. In fact, justice necessitated conscientious disobedience to injustice, regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately, in the forty years since King's death, this message has in many ways been obscured.

King's message of radical and absolute justice has been frustratingly exploited and commoditized, sublimated for a dream of simplistic pseudo-camaraderie. Thus, instead of fulfilling the "dream," we have shamefully sabotaged his social and moral legacy. However, if we really believe in Kings "dream" and we want to make it come alive, there is hope (no pun intended). King offers us a guide to realizing a better America-one that courageously calls America out on its myriad shortcomings.

Thus, while King was not a feminist, I imagine if he were alive he would be standing within the trenches with those of us who continue to fight compassionately for radical and absolute justice for all people. Despite what the sound bites say, King's "dream" was fluid. His ideas of justice and equality were constantly broadening and becoming more radical. Maybe I am an idealist, but I believe King would have eventually recognized and critiqued even his own inconsistencies, thus modifying his "dream" to be radically inclusive, regardless of difference.

Perhaps this is my "dream." I actually do believe that King would stand in solidarity with women and men across the globe tomorrow in honor of the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. While he might sit uncomfortably with some aspects of reproductive rights (and would challenge us to do the same), I believe King would view reproductive rights as women's moral right and not a political pact through which civil patriarchy can be enacted. I imagine King might also criticize pro-lifers for fighting for the rights of the unborn but yet aborting the rights of the born through the denial of equal access to education, security, healthcare, etc. However, on the flip side, King might also criticize the use of abortion as a method of birth control. Again, King was a fluid and dialectical thinker-many considerations went into the formation of his ethical judgments, a primary consideration was context.

Overall, I think King would be a supporter of women's right to choose. Choice understood in light of the preference of the choosing subject is a basic condition of freedom. King saw freedom as a moral right. Thus, King was on the side of freedom. However, freedom can be complex. Thus, King would have likely challenged the idea of subjectivity as it relates to the freedom of choice of all subjects involved, thus forcing us to sit with the possible tensions of our choices and one's moral right to choose.

In the end I think King would have upheld women's right to privacy and their right to make decisions about their bodies without interference. However, not without considering context and troubling the waters of each opposing side first. If alive, King would have challenged us to dream beyond our circumstances while forcing America to live up to its ideals of radical and absolute freedom, justice and equality for everyone in spite of difference, of course.

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    Very thought-provoking article, Tamura. As it happens we do know where Dr. King stood on family planning in general and Margaret Sanger in particular- see below “She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions.” I wonder how his words then fit into the framework you posit.

    From the PPFA website:

    In 1966 Dr. King was awarded the Margaret Sanger Award by Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

    At the awards ceremony, Mrs. Coretta Scott King delivered her husband’s acceptance speech on his behalf. Before reading his speech, Mrs. King declared,

    “I am proud tonight to say a word in behalf of your mentor, and the person who symbolizes the ideas of this organization, Margaret Sanger. Because of her dedication, her deep convictions, and for her suffering for what she believed in, I would like to say that I am proud to be a woman tonight.”

    Dr. King’s acceptance speech:

    Family Planning — A Special and Urgent Concern

    by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

    Recently, the press has been filled with reports of sightings of flying saucers. While we need not give credence to these stories, they allow our imagination to speculate on how visitors from outer space would judge us. I am afraid they would be stupefied at our conduct. They would observe that for death planning we spend billions to create engines and strategies for war. They would also observe that we spend millions to prevent death by disease and other causes. Finally they would observe that we spend paltry sums for population planning, even though its spontaneous growth is an urgent threat to life on our planet. Our visitors from outer space could be forgiven if they reported home that our planet is inhabited by a race of insane men whose future is bleak and uncertain.

    There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.

    What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.

    It is easier for a Negro to understand a social paradox because he has lived so long with evils that could be eradicated but were perpetuated by indifference or ignorance. The Negro finally had to devise unique methods to deal with his problem, and perhaps the measure of success he is realizing can be an inspiration to others coping with tenacious social problems.

    In our struggle for equality we were confronted with the reality that many millions of people were essentially ignorant of our conditions or refused to face unpleasant truths. The hard-core bigot was merely one of our adversaries. The millions who were blind to our plight had to be compelled to face the social evil their indifference permitted to flourish.

    After centuries of relative silence and enforced acceptance, we adapted a technique of exposing the problem by direct and dramatic methods. We had confidence that when we awakened the nation to the immorality and evil of inequality, there would be an upsurge of conscience followed by remedial action.

    We knew that there were solutions and that the majority of the nation were ready for them. Yet we also knew that the existence of solutions would not automatically operate to alter conditions. We had to organize, not only arguments, but people in the millions for action. Finally we had to be prepared to accept all the consequences involved in dramatizing our grievances in the unique style we had devised.

    There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist — a nonviolent resister. She was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions. At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions. She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions. Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning. Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her. Negroes have no mere academic nor ordinary interest in family planning. They have a special and urgent concern.

    Recently the subject of Negro family life has received extensive attention. Unfortunately, studies have overemphasized the problem of the Negro male ego and almost entirely ignored the most serious element — Negro migration. During the past half century Negroes have migrated on a massive scale, transplanting millions from rural communities to crammed urban ghettoes. In their migration, as with all migrants, they carried with them the folkways of the countryside into an inhospitable city slum. The size of family that may have been appropriate and tolerable on a manually cultivated farm was carried over to the jammed streets of the ghetto. In all respects Negroes were atomized, neglected and discriminated against. Yet, the worst omission was the absence of institutions to acclimate them to their new environment. Margaret Sanger, who offered an important institutional remedy, was unfortunately ignored by social and political leaders in this period. In consequence, Negro folkways in family size persisted. The problem was compounded when unrestrained exploitation and discrimination accented the bewilderment of the newcomer, and high rates of illegitimacy and fragile family relationships resulted.

    For the Negro, therefore, intelligent guides of family planning are a profoundly important ingredient in his quest for security and a decent life. There are mountainous obstacles still separating Negroes from a normal existence. Yet one element in stabilizing his life would be an understanding of and easy access to the means to develop a family related in size to his community environment and to the income potential he can command.

    This is not to suggest that the Negro will solve all his problems through Planned Parenthood. His problems are far more complex, encompassing economic security, education, freedom from discrimination, decent housing and access to culture. Yet if family planning is sensible it can facilitate or at least not be an obstacle to the solution of the many profound problems that plague him.

    The Negro constitutes half the poor of the nation. Like all poor, Negro and white, they have many unwanted children. This is a cruel evil they urgently need to control. There is scarcely anything more tragic in human life than a child who is not wanted. That which should be a blessing becomes a curse for parent and child. There is nothing inherent in the Negro mentality which creates this condition. Their poverty causes it. When Negroes have been able to ascend economically, statistics reveal they plan their families with even greater care than whites. Negroes of higher economic and educational status actually have fewer children than white families in the same circumstances.

    Some commentators point out that with present birth rates it will not be long before Negroes are a majority in many of the major cities of the nation. As a consequence, they can be expected to take political control, and many people are apprehensive at this prospect. Negroes do not seek political control by this means. They seek only what they are entitled to and do not wish for domination purchased at the cost of human misery. Negroes were once bred by slave owners to be sold as merchandise. They do not welcome any solution which involves population breeding as a weapon. They are instinctively sympathetic to all who offer methods that will improve their lives and offer them fair opportunity to develop and advance as all other people in our society.

    For these reasons we are natural allies of those who seek to inject any form of planning in our society that enriches life and guarantees the right to exist in freedom and dignity.

    For these constructive movements we are prepared to give our energies and consistent support; because in the need for family planning, Negro and white have a common bond; and together we can and should unite our strength for the wise preservation, not of races in general, but of the one race we all constitute — the human race.