Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Second Mountaintop

APRIL 13, 1998: 

In the just-concluded weekend of remembrances for the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a number of vastly different points were made by those, both local and from elsewhere, who gathered in Memphis to pay their respects to the dreamer 30 years after his death. There was one note, however, that recurred in the tributes with surprising regularity: This was that Dr. King should not be remembered – exclusively or even primarily – as a champion of “civil rights.”

The message brought by several speakers, ranging from the Rev. James Lawson to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was to remind us that, at the time of his assassination here in April 1968, Dr. King was involved in plans for a forthcoming “Poor People’s March” on Washington, D.C. Already immersed in opposition to the then-raging war in Vietnam, King had resolved to tackle the intractable problem of economic inequities in America, and his several visits to Memphis on behalf of striking sanitation workers could be seen not as a detour in that journey but as part of the main road to its accomplishment.

We all remember King’s famous declaration, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered to supporters at Mason Temple on the night before he was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The fact is, King was even then on his way to a second mountaintop – one which neither he nor anyone else has yet reached. “A movement to transform America,” is how Lawson, decisively rejecting the term “civil-rights movement” in Memphis last week, chose to describe the amended mission of Martin Luther King.

Jackson was explicit about the nature of this uncompleted mission. It involved the assurance to the masses of proper health care, of wages that would bring the American dream into line with Dr. King’s dream – and make waking realities of both. It involved, said Jackson, putting brakes on monopolists like computer tycoon Bill Gates and forcing “Wall Street” to submit to the “democratization of capital and wealth.”

It is largely forgotten now, but Jackson’s two presidential campaigns, in 1984 and 1988, were devoted much more to economic concerns like saving family farms from foreclosure and the barons of corporate agriculture than to serving as a spokesman for one race against another. Whether out of convenience or laziness or some other motive, too much of the American media overlooked his larger social ambitions, as they had Dr. King’s earlier, relegating them both to a neat racial pigeonhole.

As the past weekend of remembrance got under way, there was an interesting sidelight. Our city’s daily newspaper announced that it would duly examine the problem of economic justice that, it acknowledged, had meant so much to Martin Luther King. Whereupon the paper proceeded with a series on the black middle class.

With all due respect to our doubtless well-intentioned colleagues, we don’t believe that the opening up of perks and opportunities for a small minority of African Americans – to the “easy” life, as one subject in the newspaper’s series described it – has any more to do with the dream of Martin Luther King than does the fact of a significantly larger number of easy riders among our country’s white population.

Jackson and Lawson are correct. Dr. King’s final dream was of economic justice for all Americans. It is nothing less than the second mountaintop to which we all, on behalf of all, must aspire.

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