Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Martin Luther King's dream is alive

By Kevin Powell, Special to CNN
January 21, 2013 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kevin Powell: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would hardly recognize America in 2013
  • Powell: King and others made it possible for Barack Obama to be elected president
  • He says despite progress, King would find a lot more that needs to be done
  • Powell: In celebration of his legacy, let's treat each other with humanity and compassion

Editor's note: Kevin Powell is the author of "Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays." E-mail him at kevin@kevinpowell.net, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell.

(CNN) -- The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would hardly recognize America in 2013, the 50th anniversary year of his world-famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The efforts of King and countless others have not only made it possible for Barack Obama to become the first black president of the United States, but also created unprecedented opportunities for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and virtually anyone who had previously been given a check that has, as King put it, "come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"

I personally cannot think of MLK Day without reflecting on my life as a product of post-civil rights America: I was conceived on the coattails of that movement to a single mother, absent father, horrific poverty, and despair and fear I would not wish upon anyone.

Kevin Powell
Kevin Powell

Yet here I am, a direct beneficiary of King's legacy. I do not take the opportunities given to me lightly. Especially since my mother, born in South Carolina in the Jim Crow-era, has sickening memories of the racial oppression back in those days. Her family had no electricity, no indoor running water and no television.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The day that King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, my mother turned 20. "We knew there was colored folks marching in Washington," my mother told me. "We just did not know what for exactly."

The what for had everything to do with democracy, freedom, voting and citizenship rights, for a group longed blocked from the doors of the American dream. It means the only way we could ever come to "a beautiful symphony of brotherhood" that King spoke of is for each of us, no matter our background, to honor and recognize who we are, including very uncomfortable parts of our history, like slavery, which was depicted in recent films like Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." We cannot sit at the table of diversity and multiculturalism if we are not even clear what we are bringing to share.

In King's speeches and writings in the last years of his life, he wanted people, including black people, to embrace and appreciate their culture and heritage. But it was never an either or for him. King worked for and loved Black America, and he worked for and loved America.

Hear lost interview of MLK Jr.
Memorial sees first MLK Day
King: Obama MLK Bible use 'heartwarming'

From 1963 to the present, the United States has changed dramatically. When I attended integrated schools, I remember sitting elbow to elbow with children of different races, something my mother could not have fathomed in her childhood dominated by "Whites Only" and "Coloreds Only" signs everywhere.

But the work is far from over.

I think King would be saddened that the poverty and economic disparities he fought against at the end of his life are still here. He would be outraged by the kind of racism that routinely profiles young black and Latino males and fills our nation's prison system with black and brown bodies.

He would be awestruck and angered by the visionless black leadership that has come to dominate black communities nationwide, more concerned with media moments and money than solutions. He would wonder how black culture has deteriorated from Harry Belafonte, Motown and Nina Simone to Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, and reality TV shows that present utterly destructive black images.

I think he would be disheartened by the numerous wars that have occurred since Vietnam and by the fact that more than one million Americans have died by gun violence since he himself was shot and murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968. And moreover, he would be very outspoken about how some Americans treat immigrants, and our inability to see their plights as great civil rights issues of our time.

But, King would smile broadly, in that way he did, as we witnessed the stunning rainbow coalition of Americans who voted Barack Obama into office in 2008, as a direct extension of King's prophetic dream.

Despite the historical significance of electing Barack Obama into the Oval Office twice, and the great victories we accomplished together as a nation in the past 50 years, King would urge us to continue his work since a lot more needs to be done.

The harsh reality is that Martin Luther King Jr. is never coming back. We have a federal holiday dedicated to him, we have the moral authority of his spoken and written words, and we have his mighty spirit hovering over our nation like an uninterrupted sheet of light. But I sincerely believe that if we are going to live up to the extraordinary vision of King, then we must open our hearts more to each other, as sisters and brothers, as part of the human family.

We know, as he knew, that love must be a living and breathing thing. In celebration of his legacy, let's keep in mind that service to others must become as natural to us as breathing, for the good of America and for the good of all of us.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kevin Powell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT