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Martin Luther King Jr: Can the US live up to his ideals and values?

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Picture: Independent Media Archives – Dr Martin Luther King Jr delivers his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, United States. The US celebrates Martin Luther King Day every January 15, the date of his birth, but unfortunately, the writer says, the country echoes his words, and does not honour them in doing what he has fought for, what he has taught.

By David Monyae

The United States celebrated the Martin Luther King Day on January 15. Martin Luther King Jr, assassinated in 1968, was the leader of the 1950s-1960s Civil Rights movement, which led a non-violent campaign to end racial discrimination against African Americans.

The campaign was prosecuted through peaceful but impactful marches and boycotts, the most famous of which include the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 – which led to the Supreme Court declaring segregation in buses unconstitutional – and the 1963 Great March on Washington demanding freedom and jobs attended by more than 250,000 people. Upon signing the holiday into federal law in 1983, the former US President Ronald Reagan credited Dr King for making America “a more democratic nation, a more just nation, and a more peaceful nation”.

Among other things, Dr King called out police brutality, economic discrimination against black people, and the political disenfranchisement of minorities especially African Americans. Under his leadership, the Civil Rights Movement registered numerous breakthroughs, namely the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in public spaces and outlawed discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and national origin.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 after hard lobbying by the Civil Rights Movement. The Act, one of the most consequential in American history, removed race-based restrictions on voting such as literacy tests that aimed to disenfranchise the non-white electorate.

Dr King was also one of the most vehement critics of the US foreign policy, which he claimed was based on racism, militarism, and violence. An uncompromising believer in non-violence, Dr King denounced Washington’s Vietnam war describing it as an “unjust and evil war” which siphoned scarce resources from where they were needed the most.

At a church gathering to honour Dr King’s life, the US President remarked that “we gather to contemplate his moral vision and to commit ourselves to his path — to his path”. “The path that leads to the ‘Beloved Community’, to the sacred place and that sacred hour when justice rains down like waters and righteousness was a mighty stream.”

But the question still remains: has the US managed to live up to the values and ideals of Martin Luther King 60 years after his death? Unfortunately, the US only honours Dr King’s ideals in words and not in deeds. Racial inequality still persists in the American society. While average household income for Black and Hispanic families was US$46,000 and US$55,000, the income for White and Asian households stood at US$95,000 and US$75,000 respectively.

The wealth gap is even wider with black families boasting a median wealth of US$23,000 compared to US$183,000 for white families. Moreover, there are racial disparities in terms of access to healthcare with non-white groups likely to higher health risks such as obesity and chronic illness. During the Covid-19 pandemic, non-white populations such as Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans were at least 1.7 times likely to succumb to the virus than their white counterparts who enjoyed superior healthcare.

Police brutality, one of the central issues of Dr King’s campaigns is still a problem in the US. While black people in the US accounted for only 13 percent of the population, they made up 27 percent of the people illegally killed by the police in 2021 meaning that black people were twice as likely to be killed by the police than white people. As such, it seems the US still falls far short of Dr King’s ideals in the domestic front.

On the international front, the US has strayed even farther from what Dr King fought and stood for. As the country celebrates his legacy, the US is involved in two wars: the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Palestine conflict. In both wars, the US has helped perpetuate conflict rather than find ways of stopping it and restoring peace. For example, Washington has been pumping billions of dollars’ worth of military aid to Ukraine and Israel to sustain their respective war efforts.

Not much effort has been made to end the conflicts peacefully. As a matter of fact, the US vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution which demanded a ceasefire between Palestine and Israel whose fighting has killed over 24,000 people including an estimated 10,000 children in Gaza.

Just a few days before Dr King’s birthday on January 15, the US carried out devastating airstrikes in Yemen which it said were targeted at the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who were reportedly attacking ships destined for Israel in the Red Sea. Such a move by the US and the United Kingdom risks widening the conflict in the Middle East and making the restoration of peace even more unlikely.

Further, one could argue that the US and its Nato allies’ decision to invite Ukraine to join the military alliance despite Russia’s concerns for its own security contributed to the outbreak of the first major war in Europe in 77 years.

Martin Luther King would have loved the US to be a force for peace and security in the world. Instead, its policies have made the world less peaceful and stable. As the US celebrates Dr King’s legacy it is time for its leadership to realign its domestic and foreign policy choices with his ideals and values. With the amount of power at its disposal, using Dr King’s ideals as a moral compass when exercising it would make the world a much better place.

David Monyae is the Director for the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg