King: `Now is the Time to Make Real the Promise'
By James Carroll
January 18, 2010
The great Martin Luther King Jr. address of 1963 at the
speech. But King spoke an even more compelling line
that day: "When will you be satisfied?'' It was the
question that had so often been put to him and his
fellow "devotees of Civil Rights,'' and it carried the
accusation that he was a malcontent - never happy with
the incremental progress offered to black Americans, as
if the shift from slavery to Jim Crow should have been
enough. "No!'' he answered.
King launched the civil rights movement, but was not
satisfied - because he saw that racial discrimination
was embedded in violence. Therefore he drew the link
with the nation's violence in
together powerful movements opposing racism and war -
but still he was not satisfied. He saw how the brew of
racism and violence was essential to poverty, and he
recast the movement again, launching the Poor Peoples'
Campaign. Yes, a class revolt, and it got him killed.
"No! No! We are not satisfied!'' he had declared in
rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream!''
If King were with us today, one imagines him speaking
less of dreams and more of dissatisfaction. For
starters, he might eschew the word "poor'' in favor of
"impoverished,'' since poverty is not a natural state,
but the result of social structures, policies, and
market systems tilted to protect the privilege of a few
at the expense of many. That's more clear this year
than ever. In the four decades since King's murder, it
is true that doors have opened to African-Americans,
even including the door to the White House. Wouldn't
that leave him satisfied? But one hears the answer,
"No! No!'' And then that rolling cadence, the prophetic
voice denouncing, say, the vast American prison
population, disproportionately made up of young black
males, most of whom are guilty not of violent acts, but
of the crime of, well, being dissatisfied. Rather than
educate or motivate such malcontents, and rather than
address the conditions that condemn them to
the streets and lock them up.
Since King's time, the free markets have gone global,
and now vast populations of humans have been declared
redundant. Having made connections between civil
rights, domestic poverty, and US wars, King can be
readily pictured today making further connections with
the cast-aways abroad - the impoverished masses who
have been declared superfluous by the world economy.
The catastrophe of
global inequity to King. He was attuned to the real
suffering of individual human beings, and would be part
of the effort to alleviate it there. But would he be
satisfied with the compassion of the moment? Moral
sentiment unattached to structural analysis, and to
changes in systemic causes of poverty, is worse than
God, but King would rage at any characterization of the
foundational Haitian plight that left out historical
factors like slavery and colonialism, or the defining
contemporary influence of the
across the years since King's death, has, in relation
What is the key to King's greatness? It was his
ferocious dissatisfaction that fueled his capacity to
dream, and to articulate his dream in a way that made
its fulfillment possible. Yes, King's dream did come
true when Barack Obama took the oath as president one
year ago this week. But equally, King's dream, even in
coming true, continually fired his refusal to be
satisfied. No! No! King would be a malcontent today:
"When will you be satisfied?'' And today,
define his answer. His burning unhappiness on behalf of
that benighted nation would ignite his urgency and his
action. " Now is the time to make real the promises,''
he said in
doors of opportunity to all of God's children.'' In
this world from justice. Now is the time to close it.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.