Students seek to reapply King legacy
By Abbie Kouzmanoff
Published on Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Strong connections can be made between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and today’s Occupy movement, according to a panel in Collis Common Ground on Tuesday night. The panel, “I Have a Dream for Dartmouth,” addressed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s spiritual, social and economic ideology and how it is perceived today.
The panel — part of the College’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — discussed whether our present day understanding of King’s message lines up with his actual beliefs and whether his and his supporters’ work toward economic justice can be linked to the Occupy movement.
Fifteen people attended the lecture, including the three speakers, assistant chaplain Kurt Nelson, sociology professor Marc Dixon and Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies professor Julia Rabig. The panel did not use the stage or microphones and instead formed an intimate discussion circle with the audience due to the small number of attendees.
Palaeopitus member Kip Dooley ’12 introduced the panel and set the tone for the discussion by highlighting the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideas were much more complex than many people believe.
“Martin Luther King’s ideas had a lot more to them than just ending segregation,” Dooley said. “The goal is to reexamine King’s legacy: Who was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?”
Dooley is a member of The Dartmouth Staff.
Nelson, who was asked to discuss the King’s spirituality, pointed out that modern society’s conceptions of him largely boil down to 34 words of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
“Our ideas about Martin Luther King are all out of a short section of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Nelson said. “We face the problem of the Santa Clausification of Martin Luther King — people turn him into a platitude.”
Nelson said that after 1965, King not only battled racism, but also militarism and materialism, which speaks powerfully to the present day.
“I certainly see the spirit of King and the liberation movement very much alive today,” Nelson said. “We are fighting materialism with the Occupy movement, and we are fighting racism.”
Dixon said King and the civil rights movement might help people make sense of current movements.
“There are direct comparisons we can draw to the Occupy movements today,” Dixon said. “Thirty to 40 percent of protests were directed against businesses in the early 1960s of the civil rights movement — it was the bread and butter of civil rights activism.”
Dixon said that the civil rights movement can also be linked to economic movements today through minority group involvement.
“Researchers have found that African-American groups remain frequent sponsors of protests against corporations revolving around economic as well as racial justice claims,” Dixon said. “Racial justice was necessarily intertwined with economic justice given the plight of African-Americans during King’s time.”
The connection between racial and economic movements pushed activists to use the momentum of the civil rights movement to spearhead economic justice, according to Dixon.
“At the end of King’s life, there was a movement to use the power of the civil rights movement of the ’60s to work on economic inequality,” Dixon said. “Economic and racial coalitions began to form within multiple campaigns in the late ’60s, early ’70s.”
Rabig agreed that King has been largely “de-radicalized” today and attempted to draw further connections between the surprisingly economically driven civil rights movement and Occupy.
“Civil rights are deeply intertwined with movements for economic equality,” Rabig said. “[King] became more deeply involved with economic justice in the late 1960s, especially with his involvement regarding inadequate housing for blacks.”
Rabig said many of King’s economic beliefs were not publicized due to fears that he would be accused of communism.
“King’s every word was under the scrutiny of the FBI for a connection to communism,” Rabig said. “However, King was attempting to make headway on economic justice before his death.”
Rabig said connections are now being made between the economic movements that sprouted after King’s death and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Rabig said that the media similarly covered both the Poor People’s Campaign after King’s death and the Occupy movement.
“The media often provided coverage that was sympathetic but reduced its complexities and helped to marginalize it,” Rabig said of the Poor People’s Campaign. “This is similar to the Occupy movement and the way it has sort of been maligned in the press.”
Although the speakers all acknowledged obvious differences between the civil rights movement and Occupy — such as the lack of a central figurehead like King — they all said they believe there is value in the comparison.
“I think the Occupy movement is struggling with racism,” Rabig said. “You see a lot of debates unfolding that were also happening in the civil rights movement.”
After opening up the floor for discussion, the speakers concluded by offering their own opinions on the future of the Occupy movement and its success.
“I think Occupy has already won because there has been a labor movement out there for the past 30 years talking about the top 1 percent, but Occupy alone has been able to put all this attention on inequality so quickly,” Dixon said. “This is remarkable.”
Nelson hopes that Occupy can expand its influence to empower other movements.
“The Occupy movement has the potential to reenergize movements that are already happening — Occupy loves itself a little too much right now,” Nelson said. “I think the way forward is for Occupy to realize that there are activist groups speaking to minority needs out there, and hopefully Occupy can force the way ahead and help them.”
Rabig concluded by connecting the lasting impact of King’s activism on campaigns today.
“I don’t want to be overly optimistic, but I think looking at the local effects of this national movement can give us some insight into the continuity of King’s legacy,” Rabig said.
The panel was sponsored by the Palaeopitus Senior Society.