Yesterday was an historic day for the social justice movement as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. finally opened to the public. Dr. King, of course, was our nation’s leading advocate for social justice and equality in the 20th century. And the National Mall is our nation’s preeminent civic space and an area filled with national museums, war memorials, and tributes to great American Presidents. The addition of a Dr. King memorial to the National Mall is a fitting tribute to the important role that his message of non-violence and equality has played in achieving social progress in America, and will help preserve Dr. King’s legacy for future generations.
The heart of the Dr. King Memorial is a sculpture that that symbolizes the struggle that Dr. King carried on against injustice. It is described by the artist as follows:
At the entry portal, two stones are parted and a single stone wedge is pushed forward toward the horizon; the missing piece of what was once a single boulder. The smooth insides of the portal contrast the rough outer surfaces of the boulder. Beyond this portal, the stone appears to have been thrust into the plaza, wrested from the boulder and pushed forward – it bears signs of a great monolithic struggle.
On the visible side of the stone, the theme of hope is presented, with the text from King’s famed 1963 speech cut sharply into the stone: “Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” On the other side are inscribed these words: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness”, a statement suggested by Dr. King himself when describing how he would like to be remembered.
The boulder is the Mountain of Despair, through which every visitor will enter, moving through the struggle as Dr. King did during his life, and then be released into the open freedom of the plaza. The solitary stone is the Stone of Hope, from which Dr. King’s image emerges, gazing over the Tidal Basin toward the horizon, seeing a future society of justice and equality for which he encouraged all citizens to strive.
The Memorial also includes a wall inscribed with fourteen quotes from Dr. King, a stand of 182 cherry blossom trees that have their peak blooming period right around April 4, the day that Dr. King was assassinated, and an address of 1964 Independence Avenue in honor of the critical role Dr. King played in passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The opening for the Memorial is being celebrated at events all this week, culminating with a dedication ceremony on Saturday, August 28 that President Obama is expected to attend.
As we celebrate Dr. King this week and work to carry on his legacy, it is important that we keep in mind exactly what the legacy is. Dr. King is, of course, best known for his call for a colorblind future is which all people are judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin. But popular sentiments about Dr. King too often leave out the fact that he realized that such a future could be achieved only if we as individuals and a society engaged in a transformative fight against the evils of racism, poverty, and war.
Along those lines, here are a few other quotes from Dr. King that provide a sense of the strong social justice legacy that he represents. First, Dr. King spoke frequently about how all individuals and communities are interrelated, as this quote from the 1963 Letter From a Birmingham Jail makes clear:
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Second, in announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War, Dr. King explained how militarism was sapping resources away from the “shining moment” in which it appeared that government was finally serious about tackling poverty:
A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.
Third, in his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Council, Dr. King not only advocated for a national guaranteed minimum income, but he also made clear that his vision required a major transformation of our society into one that better balances the individual ethos of free-market capitalism with more communitarian policies that help ensure that the benefits from society are enjoyed by all.
I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk aboutWhere do we go from here,that we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question,Why are there forty million poor people in America?And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question,Who owns the oil?You begin to ask the question,Who owns the iron ore?You begin to ask the question,Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?These are questions that must be asked.
Now, don’t think that you have me in abindtoday. I’m not talking about communism.
What I’m saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.
In short, Dr. King’s legacy was that of a social justice leader who understood that a social movement based on civil disobedience and pushing for government action was needed quickly to bring about the kind of equality and fairness that had been denied to oppressed people for far too long. We should all celebrate the memorialization of that legacy on the National Mall in our country’s capitol.