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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fought to the end. He did not waver. He remained consistent in his demand for the government to respond rightly to the needs of its people. He also did not hesitate to challenge the hypocrisy of black civic leaders like Whitney Young, former head of the National Urban League, and others who were willing to trade their standing in the black community in exchange for favorable positions from the foundation community or the administration of former President Lyndon Johnson.

That’s why toward the end of his life, King wasn’t held in high esteem in the black civic community because most of them were afraid to push the envelope for equality the way he did. They preferred he remained silent on the Vietnam War and a host of other issues. But he did not.  And because of that kind of courageous leadership by King, who would have turned 90 on Tuesday, we are a better nation still seeking to be a more perfect union.  

I have been thinking about what King at 90 would have said to black America and the nation in 2019. But because he took an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, in Memphis for standing in solidarity with garbage workers, I deduced that he would be concerned about the plight of those who have been robbed of their humanity and dignity. He would not be happy about the economic injustice that is so prevalent in many poor and disenfranchised communities. He would be speaking out forcefully about the conditions of low wage workers who are being exploited and at the same time told to be happy they still have a job.

King would come down on the side of the 800,000 workers affected by the federal government shutdown, and urge the political intransigence in Washington, D.C., to end so that those workers who have missed paychecks could put food on the table.

King would probably direct his most biting critique toward black civic leaders of this dispensation, including those who’ve assigned themselves some sort of divine authority as designated envoys of the black community to wider society. He would call them out for their complicity in the injustices facing many poor blacks and for keeping silent because they want a foundation grant for their pet projects. He would be disappointed to see that some civic leaders, instead of being agitators for true social change, have become political insiders who are happy to trade their silence in exchange for mayoral and city council appointments to boards and commissions.

Much in the same way he challenged the nation in the “Beyond Vietnam” speech and admonished members of the clergy in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” King would call for “a true revolution of values” that will force us to question our actions regarding fairness and justice.

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” King said in his Vietnam speech. Detroit in many ways epitomizes the beggar analogy because it is a city struggling with income inequality and affordability despite how the comeback is often framed in the national spotlight.

That is why the quest for racial and economic justice must continue. No matter how long and lonely the journey gets, we cannot give up on the promises in the Declaration of Independence, which are inconsistent with where things are now.

“But we are not finished if we are not also fighting to prevent and eliminate the violence of joblessness, poor education, poverty, and hunger; the inequalities and injustices that feed and accompany them; and the unjust systems that create them,” Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote in a 2016 Huffington Post column.  

That is precisely where we are today.

Following the example of King’s leadership requires more than displaying powerful oratory in his memory in front of a packed audience during this weekend of celebrations honoring his work. It takes more than delivering an invocation that whips people into a frenzy so they can return to their miseries later.

Instead it is going to demand of us all to continue to challenge a social order that produces economic mendacity as opposed to economic opportunities for growth in Detroit.  

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.

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