April 4 marks the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a balcony in Memphis. Black America and people of goodwill in the nation and the world were stricken by grief, frustration and anger at the murder of this great man of justice and peace. Indeed, rebellions erupted in urban centers across the nation by people who could not fathom how an apostle of non-violence could be struck down so viciously and violently. It was clear that America was at yet another crossroad in the quest to achieve racial, economic and social justice.
Despite constant death threats, Dr. King never flinched in his determination that this nation should be made to live up to its creed. The night before he was murdered, he reluctantly mounted the podium at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis and seemed to have a premonition of his impending demise. Yet, he proclaimed that he was not afraid dying. In the most memorable part of his oration he took the audience to the “mountaintop” with him and declared that he had “seen the promised land.” Sensing that his life would be cut short he said, “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.”
As we reflect on King’s courage and optimism in the shadow of death, the question is: Can we make it to the Promised Land? Clearly Dr. King was speaking to the long suffering sons and daughters of Africa in America when he referenced “we as a people.” But given his fervent belief in the promise of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, there is little doubt that he also believed that one day America as a nation must arrive at the Promised Land. Dr. King also knew that for the “promise” to be realized Black people and people of good will in the “beloved community” would have to struggle to achieve its fulfillment. There would be trials and tribulations because there were forces deeply committed to restricting economic and political democracy to an elite “few” to the exclusion of the “many” in this society.
As Dr. King peered over into the Promised Land, he saw a nation that embraced his concept of an Economic Bill of Rights modeled after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” where every human being would have a decent standard of living: a land where no-one would lack for a job with a living wage or guaranteed annual income, quality affordable housing, healthcare and education.
To get to the Promised Land, Dr. King was preparing a Poor People’s Campaign to galvanize the “many” to struggle for an Economic Bill of Rights even in the face of the fierce resistance of the “few” at the commanding heights of capital and finance. To get to the Promised Land, Dr. King also warned that the people, those who aspired to create the change must themselves undergo a change, a personal “revolution” that would translate into creating a just and humane society.
Hence he proclaimed, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
The people must create a “moral movement” to get to the Promised Land and that movement cannot countenance a system incompatible with “person-oriented” values. Therefore, those who would get to the Promised Land must challenge and change systems of oppression and exploitation; they must advance a politics of social transformation. As Dr. King put it, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
As we witness the calculated, mean-spirited assault on Blacks, labor, women and poor and working people by rightwing extremists, the explosive growth in mass incarceration within the prison-jail industrial complex and the ever increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, we must continue to be inspired by Dr. King’s view from the mountaintop. Black people in particular must be dedicated to leading ourselves and the downtrodden/dispossessed to the Promised Land.
Ron Daniels is president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York.