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Dreier: What would Martin Luther King Jr. march for today?

Published: Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

What would the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. march for if he were alive today?

America has made progress on many fronts in the half-century since King electrified a crowd of 250,000 people, and millions of Americans watching on television, with his “I Have a Dream” address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

But there is still much to do to achieve his vision of equality.

Today, at age 84, King would no doubt still be on the front lines, lending his voice and his energy to major battles for justice.

Voting rights: Along with other civil rights leaders, King fought hard to dismantle Jim Crow laws that kept blacks from voting. He was proud of his role in pushing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. He’d be outraged by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to weaken the law that, among other things, increased the number of black voters and black elected officials.

Gun violence: During the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, King faced constant death threats and feared for his family’s life. He owned several guns and allowed armed guards to protect his home. But Bayard Rustin – a pacifist who was one of King’s closest advisers – persuaded King to give up his guns and guards and embrace a nonviolent strategy. Today he would probably push for tougher limits on gun ownership.

Mass incarceration: King recognized that the criminal justice system has long had a double standard when it comes to the treatment of black and white Americans. Today he would be joining prison reform groups, the ACLU, the NAACP and others that have been protesting racial profiling by police and drug policies that have resulted in 2.3 million Americans behind bars, many for nonviolent, minor offenses.

Immigrant rights: King would be pleased by the ties between the civil rights and immigrant rights movements. Ten years ago, a coalition of union, immigrant, faith and civil rights groups organized an Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. More than 900 riders on buses from nine cities traveled 20,000 miles, in the tradition of the 1960s Freedom Riders, to support immigration reform.

National spending priorities: By 1965, King had turned against the Vietnam War, arguing that it was stealing precious resources from domestic programs and that it was “an enemy of the poor.” In his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” King wrote, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.” At the time, he called for a comprehensive plan to create jobs, rebuild cities, improve schools and lift the poor out of destitution.

Income inequality and the working poor: A half-century before Occupy Wall Street, King warned about the “gulf between the haves and the have-nots” and insisted that America needed a “better distribution of wealth.” During the final few years of his life, King focused much of his energy on helping low-wage workers fight for rights and respect. He was in Memphis to support striking garbage workers when he was assassinated in April 1968.

Today he would join the growing campaigns to unionize and improve pay and working conditions for workers who earn poverty-level wages.

LGBT equality: Typical of most Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, King did not approve of homosexuality, even though his close adviser Rustin was openly gay. But when some civil rights leaders objected to Rustin’s role as the key organizer of the March on Washington, worried that it would tarnish the movement, King insisted that Rustin stay in the job.

When King spoke out against state laws banning interracial marriage in 1958, he sounded a lot like those who advocate for same-sex marriage today: “When any society says that I cannot marry a certain person, that society has cut off a segment of my freedom.”

The night before he was shot, King spoke at a rally for the striking garbage workers in Memphis. He told the crowd about a bomb threat on his plane from Atlanta that morning, saying he knew that his life was in danger because of his political activism.

“I would like to live a long life,” he said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

We haven’t gotten there yet. The best way to honor his memory is to continue his struggle for social justice.

• Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics and chair of the urban and environmental policy department at Occidental College. His latest book is “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.”

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