Every year, on the day we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we hear a lot about his dream of a colorblind society, one in which his children "would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Sadly, this sound bite from the 1963 March on Washington is usually the only thing we hear. Rarely do we hear anything about the steps that Dr. King believed the nation had to take to achieve a colorblind society. Fortunately, his speeches and sermons, together with his actions and activities, provide a clear picture of what he believed the nation had to do to realize his dream.
Foremost, Dr. King believed that we could not ignore race if we hoped to achieve a colorblind society. Race was the central factor in creating racial inequality, so race had to be the central factor in solving it. Dr. King did not equivocate on this point. He was certain that race had to figure prominently in any action, legislative or otherwise, designed to remedy past racial discrimination and address present racial inequality. To create a colorblind society, we had to be color conscious.
Dr. King also believed that members of the clergy had to play a leading role in creating a colorblind society. In April 1963, he was stung by criticism of his attempts to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, the most segregated city in America, leveled by the city's prominent white clergymen, who called his efforts both "unwise" and "untimely." In response, he penned "A Letter from Birmingham Jail," a timeless statement on Christian duty and clerical obligation in which he implored clergy, both black and white, to lead the charge against injustice, arguing that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and that "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Dr. King viewed the clergy as advocates for the disenfranchised and as agitators for the dispossessed. He believed in the social gospel, and in activist preachers.
Early in his public career, Dr. King thought that simply striking prejudicial laws from the books would lead to a colorblind society, and he was not alone. Many of the nation's most progressive thinkers shared this view. But the absence of substantive change following the passage of legislative measures designed to ameliorate the harsh effects of white supremacy made it abundantly clear that changing unjust laws, although necessary, was not nearly enough to create a just society. The problem, of course, was that racial inequality was not simply a product of personal prejudice, of attitudes and behaviors, that could be legislated away, but a function of the interaction of longstanding institutions and structures.
This realization prompted Dr. King late in his life to focus his energy and efforts on manifestations of racial inequality outside of the South, in urban areas like Chicago, where he discovered a form of racism as virulent and vicious as any that he had encountered in the heart of Dixie. It also led him to agitate for a fundamental reordering of society, beginning with the nation's economic structure. Above all else, he wanted a radical redistribution of wealth. "There's no reason for the richest country in the world to have people living in poverty," he said. For Dr. King, democratic socialism, rather than capitalism, was necessary for a colorblind society.
America has made tremendous strides since Dr. King shared his dream with us. Attitudes have changed and so have laws. Yet the colorblind society that he gave his life fighting for remains elusive. To make it a reality, we need to take much more seriously what he said we needed to do to achieve it.
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