Contested Meaning: King’s Legacy and the Struggle for Immigrant Justice
By David Paul Tahrir Thurston
Martin Luther King Jr. is a towering figure in
history and politics. As such, his legacy is claimed by figures from across the political spectrum. It is a testament to the power of the Civil Rights Movement, that even politicians who actively attack gains of the movement, feel compelled to invoke King’s legacy. The contradictory meaning attached to King’s life was exemplified during the recent funeral for his widow, Correta Scott King. There, every living U.S. president, including our sitting commander-in-chief, convened to deliver pious eulogies on the enduring value of both Kings’ life work. This tragicomic episode of political theater included George W. Bush, whose administration is infamous for its callous treatment of poor, black victims of Hurrricane Katrina. It also included Bill Clinton, whose popularity runs high among African-Americans. Nonetheless, U.S. Clinton’s years as president witnessed a doubling of the prison population, which is disproportionately black, poor, and Latino. U.S.
King’s legacy is also claimed by those of us fighting for social justice, whether in the movement to free the
Jena 6, the struggle for immigrant rights, or in the campaign to end the war and occupation in . Obviously, it is impossible to know where King would have stood on the issues of our day. Yet it is possible to look at the political trajectory of King’s own life, and attempt to draw lessons to serve us in the struggles of the moment. Iraq
The Martin Luther King who is memorialized in classrooms across the country during Black History Month is a pale reflection of the best of King’s life and work. We are treated to endless repetition of his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech, as if the man’s life work ended on that historic day in 1963. Yet King went on to draw very different conclusions about the character of
society from those he espoused early in his political career. King was a darling of the nation’s liberal establishment when he focused his attacks on racism exclusively on the southern edifice of Jim Crow. But when King began to challenge poverty in the North, and to point to the persistence of institionalized racism outside of the South, he became a leper within those northern liberal circles. U.S.
Among King’s most courageous acts was his condemnation of the Vietnam War, famously delivered in a speech at
Riverside Church in Harlem during 1967. King called the government the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence.” He argued that black soldiers where fighting for freedoms in Southeast Asia that they could not find in U.S. Southwest Georgia. King was roundly condemned in the media and within the political establishment for these views. While “I Have a Dream” features in many a school assembly, the speech enjoys no such prominence. Riverside Church
Activists for immigrant rights have argued that we build on the tradition of struggle developed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. While the movements of that era were focused on the legalized second-class citizenship allotted to African-Americans, the fight for immigrant justice challenges different though analogous patterns of inequality that limit the rights and opportunities of immigrants from across the globe. The immigrant rights movement is also a workers rights movement, drawing strength from the economic centrality of immigrants to the
economy. Dr. King came to see the centrality of labor issues as his politics developed in response to the issues of his day. King was killed in U.S. while supporting a strike of black sanitation workers. Memphis
Within the New Sanctuary Movement, King’s legacy is a powerful one. As a leader within the faith community, King took courageous stances against injustice. He argued that it was not enough to believe in a higher power, but that ordinary people had to act with determination to bring about the world of justice to which we aspire. In his day, King built bridges between communities and attempted to develop a perspective for the struggle against racism that took stock of the profound economic inequality that continues to infect the political and social landscape of this country.
Cesar Chavez, a lion in the struggle for immigrant rights, had this to say about Dr. King:
“My friends, the time for action is upon us. The enemies of justice want you to think of Dr. King as only a civil rights leader, but he had a much broader agent. He was a tireless crusader for the rights of the poor, for an end to the war in
long before it was popular to take that stand, and for the rights of workers everywhere.” Vietnam
In his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King’s words were prescient. He argued 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
? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth… We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” America
The movement for immigrant justice has much to learn from these words. We are challenging the systematic legal inequality afflicting immigrant workers. But we must also challenge the global economic inequality that produces unending streams of people desperate to find better lives in faraway lands. We must educate our own society about the brutal political and economic realities that force millions to migrate, and fight for solutions that protect and defend the rights of all. These are staggering tasks. But our best contribution to extending the best of King’s legacy is to apply his insight, determination, and resilience to the struggles and challenges of our time.