Home This Week in Human Rights with Joshua Aultman Spring King's Legacy: Fifty Years Out and a Million Miles Away

King's Legacy: Fifty Years Out and a Million Miles Away


Fifty years ago, a compelling idea of what it means to be an American was summarized in one of the most recognized speeches of the last century. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech reflected the hope of the time, but unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. In fact, some thought of it as a direct threat to national security.
This is a big reason why this speech and the response of authority figures are just as relevant to us today as it was to people back then. It’s really more of a timeless tale about the conflict between human rights and authority structures. Our nation still has divisive issues that place these two at odds with one another, though the actors and the structures have adapted and changed with the times. Unfortunately, our generation does not have King, so in our times of trouble and conflicting cultural values, we may want to take note of a man who saw many similar conflicts and still dreamed of a hopeful future beyond the darkness that pervaded the day.
King spoke of how the “chains of discrimination” left the lives of his people on “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” One need only walk through Gambell and Ingra streets in Anchorage to see that these islands of poverty are no mere thing of the past.
Alcoholism, homelessness, and endemic poverty spans from coast to coast in the wealthiest nation in the world. This wealth may play a very large role in our perception of this poverty and how that perception can lead to discrimination. Many attempts to aid the downtrodden, even with things as benevolent as medical attention, are brushed aside as handouts and dangerous socialist nonsense. This aid does not need to come in the form of dollar bills on street corners and calling the police when a drunk is passed out near your home. It can come in the form of active civic participation to make the problem a public discussion instead of a social norm.
King said “we must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and respect.” When listening to some of today’s political and social pundits, one might think this a notion of days far gone. It is very easy, and in some circles praiseworthy, to express oneself on the lowest plane of social discourse. One cannot strive for human rights without understanding the humanity of those who oppress you. King’s take on conduct is the reason why our society has the sort of respect for him that we do.
King understood that “we must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” It really broke my heart when I heard a teenager say that violence seen against riot police in Greece (in the form of a Molotov cocktail) was acceptable. It really made me disappointed and disgusted when the sovereign citizens movement started using bullets to argue with police officers who are bound to the same constitution that they are. Protesters, from different ends of the political spectrum, both endorsing violence against authority figures to protest the injustices they see around them only fuels an authority to bring more armor to the fight. And this is exactly what we see; heavily armored riot police and crowd control vehicles more similar to a tank. King did not participate in the destruction of segregation by spilling blood in the streets. Neither did he endorse human rights by vanquishing humans.
Certain authority figures did not accept King’s ideology and many protesters viewed their abuse of power as a sign that they were forever separate from their own humanity. King realized that “their destiny is tied up with our destiny,” and that “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” It has now been 50 years since King spoke these words, yet we still seem to be a million miles away from their actualization. But that is what made this speech so important and memorable. King wasn’t just talking to those at the March on Washington. He wasn’t just talking to a nation. He was talking through time itself. He was talking to you.