It’s an annual ritual on the birthday of the iconic civil rights leader: Pundits offer provocative interpretations of King to make him relevant for a contemporary audience.
But these commentators won’t have to work as hard this year to explain why King matters. Anyone who wants to remind Americans about the urgency of King’s message can now cite January 6, 2021.
That’s when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol and tried to block Congress’ certification of the 2020 presidential election because they wrongly believed Trump had won.
January 6 and January 15: These dueling dates are just nine days apart, yet they offer two radically different visions of what the US stands for.
For part of America, January 6 is a “1776 moment,” a great patriotic uprising. Another part of the country celebrates King’s January 15 birthday and his dream of a Beloved Community — a “world in which people of all identities are equal and included.”
The two dates present the country with a choice:
The question may seem abstract, but if you look closer at what both men did with their defining moments in Washington, the differences are clear.
Consider the contrasts between King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial and Trump’s January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally at the Ellipse.
King drew a peaceful, interracial crowd to Washington and talked about a dream that united “all of God’s children — Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants…”
Trump drew an overwhelmingly White crowd that included members of White supremacist groups, a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt and people who erected a lynching noose on the Capitol grounds.
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech helped spark the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which helped make the US a genuine democracy for the first time.
Trump’s speech directly preceded an attack on Congress that killed five people and injured many others and prompted a wave of voter suppression laws that have weakened American democracy.
King drew a cross-section of religious leaders, activists and celebrities like singer Joan Baez, future congressman John Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Charlton Heston.
Trump drew “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley, a man who paraded a Confederate Flag through the Capitol and others who smeared poop in the building’s hallways.
One crowd inspired the country. Another debased the US Capitol.
King had a dream. Trump had a mob.
King’s radical belief in democracy
The January 6 marker may help revitalize interest in King’s holiday in another way. More people might pay attention to an under-appreciated aspect of King’s legacy: His passionate defense of democracy.
Our system of government could use some inspired defenders right now. President Biden called this month for the passage of new voting rights legislation that would make it harder to steal elections. But a wall of Republican opposition and at least two Democratic senators who reject any filibuster reform has for now doomed that bill.
King lived in an era where the filibuster was routinely used to deny Black equality. NAACP leaders once fumed that the filibuster was the legislative equivalent of a lynching.
King offers voting rights advocates today a model for explaining why voter suppression laws betray democracy.
“So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind—it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact—I can only submit to the edict of others,” he said in a 1957 speech titled, “Give us the Ballot and We Will Transform the South.”
That King speech wasn’t considered revolutionary at the time. But January 6 now makes King’s belief in democracy seem, well, radical.
Most Americans no longer consider their country to be a beacon of democracy to the world. A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed this stat: 72% of Americans say the US used to be a good model of democracy for other countries to follow but has not been in recent years.
Many Americans believe the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election, which had record turnout, was stolen. About half of Republicans describe the Capitol mob’s actions as “patriotism” or “defending freedom.” Authoritarian governments in China, Russia and Brazil are on the rise, and democracy is in retreat around the globe.
How can Americans lecture other countries about democracy when so many of its own citizens no longer believe in it?
That’s why King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is more important than ever. You won’t find a more eloquent defense of multiracial democracy anywhere. It is widely considered the greatest political speech of the 20th Century because, in part, it is profoundly unoriginal. King was like a master DJ — mixing and sampling all of the nation’s founding documents to create something new.
He quotes or alludes to The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. He ended the speech by evoking an African American spiritual. He turned a political rally into a church revival for democracy.
“We consistently marginalize or ignore Dr. King’s commitment to the core values of democracy,” Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Parting the Waters,” said. “He planted one foot in American heritage, the other in scripture, and both in nonviolence.”
King’s ‘table of brotherhood’ is still unrealized
Here’s another part of King’s vision that now seems radical after January 6: His belief in racial integration.
His “I Have a Dream” speech reflected his belief that perpetual racial conflict didn’t have to be his country’s destiny. His hope is reflected in one of the most famous lines from the speech:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
Almost 60 years later, that table of brotherhood is still waiting for more diners to pull up a seat. The country’s public schools, neighborhoods and communities of worship remain largely racially segregated.
When was the last time you heard any political or civil rights leader talk with passion about racial integration?
The reasons for this are complex, but it boils down to this: There are never enough White Americans — including progressive White people – who are willing to embrace integration when it comes to accepting nonwhite people in their backyards.
President Lyndon Johnson, a contemporary of King’s, had a word for what many Americans will experience if they remain segregated. He said the country would suffer an “unraveling.”
The violence of January 6 seemed like a snapshot of that unraveling. Has the news ever before felt so grim? America has more guns than ever, pundits warn about an impending civil war and polls show a growing number of Americans say “political violence” is justified.
King knew what it was like to live in a country where violence and racial antagonism seemed ineradicable.
Even so, he still declared that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history,” he said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech a year after the March on Washington.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Those are words that lift the soul. How much will they mean, though, if the US becomes a performative democracy — a country with the veneer of fair elections but run by White minority rule.
If that happens, January 6 — not January 15 — will be a truer reflection of what the US stands for.
And what King said in 1963 will no longer be a dream. It’ll be a mirage.