In my view, the most important lesson we can learn from Dr. King is not what he said at the March on Washington, but what he said and did after the march.King, whose legacy has been narrowed by a mainstream political order to a single important speech, was more than just a civil rights leader. He was a committed radical, a critic and activist looking not only to end segregation, but to end racism, war and to drastically alter capitalism. He spoke out vociferously against the Vietnam War and stood with black trash haulers in Memphis who were fighting for better treatment and better wages. It was during a visit to Memphis, following one of his most blistering speeches, that he was assassinated.
That sense of justice, Alexander now realizes, means that she must move beyond the narrow lane in which she has been working and that she must become committed to every piece of the fight.
I am still committed to building a movement to end mass incarceration, but I will not do it with blinders on. If all we do is end mass incarceration, this movement will not have gone nearly far enough. A new system of racial and social control will simply be erected in its place, all because we did not do what Dr. King demanded we should: connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism.
Here in New Jersey, our major cities are crumbling. Police are being laid off and the schools are a wreck. It is no accident that those cities are majority black and Latino. It is no accident that the major employers have left for the suburbs (or overseas). We encouraged businesses to flea the cities by providing subsidies in the form of both tax breaks and shiny new infrastructure in the new suburbs. And when the businesses fled, seeking better facilities and more space but also starving the cities of funding, we blamed the cities and left them to fester, leaving their residents to deal with failing schools and rising crime.
As the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of King's most famous speech, eliding the most radical parts of it and focusing on a very narrow definition of colorblindness as we patted ourselves on the back for the progress we've made, the president began consideration of another bombing campaign and the city of Trenton was in the throes of a murder spree.
We talked of King and equality, but we avoided real discussion of King's larger vision, of his economic demands and his call to end our military addiction. King knew, as Alexander points out, that all of this is interrelated, and that we must take all of them on if we are to create a more just world.
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