MLK and the Ghost of an Untrue Dream

Photograph Source: Sarah Stierch – CC BY 2.0

It is a hard thing to live haunted by the ghost of an untrue dream.

– W.E.B. Du Bois

In his keynote address for the Civil Rights Movement’s March on Washington, DC in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. expressed his despair and disappointment that a century after emancipation, freedom still was not a lived reality in the United States of America:

One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

Calling the nation back to its noble ideals, King shared his dream which, he underscored, was “deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’.” King dreamed that one day on the hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners would sit down together. He dreamed that one day the state of Mississippi would transform from a place of injustice and oppression to a place of justice and freedom. He dreamed that his four children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by “the content of their character.” He dreamed that in Alabama white and black children would hold hands as sisters and brothers.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked the end of racial segregation in schools, workplaces, and public facilities. Decidedly, this was a victory for the Movement. However, as King soon realized, the Civil Rights Act mattered little unless economic conditions in America changed. He agonized that he had integrated blacks into the wrong value structure. For King’s dream was beyond racial segregation. It was beyond dreams of upward mobility and material gain. It was about social justice and equality. Harry Belafonte, a loyal supporter of the Civil Rights Moment and friend of King, shares:

I remember the last time we were together, at my home, shortly before he was murdered. He seemed quite agitated and preoccupied, and I asked him what the problem was. “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply,” he said. “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will be victorious. But what bothers me is that I’ve come to believe that we’re integrated into a burning house.”

King’s dream of economic justice and equality required America’s power structures to change. It required America to take a critical look at the unbridled capitalist system that gave way to perpetual injustice. It required a radical and deep reconstruction of both politics and society, where the tangled roots of racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism would be exposed and eliminated. As King saw it now, the meaning of Du Bois’s color line exceeded the racial divide; it referred to all social rifts including the class-line.

King spent the last year of his life planning for a new movement, the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC), which emphasized the need for decent jobs, housing, and income. Partnering with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King and his team envisioned bringing poor people from across the country—Southern rural and northern ghetto blacks, Appalachian whites, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, and others—to the doorsteps of Congress to express their economic grievances. They hoped that if thousands camped in tents outside the government buildings, “the invisible poor suddenly materializing en masse” would help move the needle for social and economic justice. But before the scheduled PPC march and encampment could begin, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated.

The US government’s response to the challenge posed by the PPC was to empower a group of black organizers with economic enticements and thus try to suppress the larger social discontent. In the late 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson gave jobs to a few black leaders through Office of Economic Opportunity; then President Richard Nixon set up an Office of Minority Business Enterprise. In an effort to develop “black capitalism,” Chase Manhattan Bank and the Rockefeller family encouraged white capitalists to support black businessmen. “There was a small amount of change and a lot of publicity,” writes Zinn, “There were more black faces in the newspapers and on television, creating an impression of change—and siphoning off into the mainstream a small but significant number of black leaders.” Despite new opportunities for a number of black people, the realities of poverty—and “the ghost of an untrue dream,” in Du Bois’s words—continued to haunt the majority.

Black capitalism was not the answer to King’s dream of social and economic equality and justice. It could not heal the hundreds of years old and still bleeding wound of oppression. It could not eradicate the color line. If anything, black capitalism introduced a new division, namely the class line within the black community. It wrongly suggested that capitalist corporate mainstream—an inherently oppressive system grounded in the relentless dynamics of capital accumulation, and the exploitation of labor power and material resources—was the road to racial redemption and uplift, and therefore further complicated the race and class issues in America.

Excerpted from A JUNGIAN INQUIRY INTO THE AMERICAN PSYCHE, by Ipek S. Burnett, published by ROUTLEDGE (2019), pages 76-78.

More articles by:

Ipek S. Burnett is a depth psychologist and Turkish novelist living in San Francisco. She’s the author of A Jungian Inquiry into the American Psyche: The Violence of Innocence (Routledge, 2019).  

July 09, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 Exposes the Weakness of a Major Theory Used to Justify Capitalism
Ahrar Ahmad
Racism in America: Police Choke-Holds Are Not the Issue
Timothy M. Gill
Electoral Interventions: a Suspiciously Naïve View of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War World
Daniel Falcone
Cold War with China and the Thucydides Trap: a Conversation with Richard Falk
Daniel Beaumont
Shrink-Wrapped: Plastic Pollution and the Greatest Economic System Jesus Ever Devised
Prabir Purkayastha
The World Can Show How Pharma Monopolies Aren’t the Only Way to Fight COVID-19
Gary Leupp
“Pinning Down Putin” Biden, the Democrats and the Next War
Howard Lisnoff
The Long Goodbye to Organized Religion
Cesar Chelala
The Dangers of Persecuting Doctors
Mike Garrity – Erik Molvar
Back on the List: A Big Win for Yellowtone Grizzlies and the Endangered Species Act, a Big Loss for Trump and Its Enemies
Purusottam Thakur
With Rhyme and Reasons: Rap Songs for COVID Migrants
Binoy Kampmark
Spiked Concerns: The Melbourne Coronavirus Lockdown
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela is on a Path to Make Colonialism Obsolete
George Ochenski
Where are Our Political Leaders When We Really Need Them?
Dean Baker
Is it Impossible to Envision a World Without Patent Monopolies?
William A. Cohn
Lead the Way: a Call to Youth
July 08, 2020
Laura Carlsen
Lopez Obrador’s Visit to Trump is a Betrayal of the U.S. and Mexican People
Melvin Goodman
Afghanistan: What is to be Done?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
The End of the American Newspaper
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Merits of Medicare for All Have Been Proven by This Pandemic
David Rosen
It’s Now Ghislaine Maxwell’s Turn
Nicolas J S Davies
Key U.S. Ally Indicted for Organ Trade Murder Scheme
Bob Lord
Welcome to Hectobillionaire Land
Laura Flanders
The Great American Lie
John Kendall Hawkins
Van Gogh’s Literary Influences
Marc Norton
Reopening vs. Lockdown is a False Dichotomy
Joel Schlosberg
“All the Credit He Gave Us:” Time to Drop Hamilton’s Economics
CounterPunch News Service
Tribes Defeat Trump Administration and NRA in 9th Circuit on Sacred Grizzly Bear Appeal
John Feffer
The US is Now the Global Public Health Emergency
Nick Licata
Three Books on the 2020 Presidential Election and Their Relevance to the Black Live Matter Protests
Elliot Sperber
The Breonna Taylor Bridge
July 07, 2020
Richard Eskow
The War on Logic: Contradictions and Absurdities in the House’s Military Spending Bill
Daniel Beaumont
Gimme Shelter: the Brief And Strange History of CHOP (AKA CHAZ)
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s War
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Racism May be Blatant, But the Culture He Defends Comes Out of the Civil War and Goes Well Beyond Racial Division
Andrew Stewart
Can We Compare the George Floyd Protests to the Vietnam War Protests? Maybe, But the Analogy is Imperfect
Walden Bello
The Racist Underpinnings of the American Way of War
Nyla Ali Khan
Fallacious Arguments Employed to Justify the Revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s Autonomy and Its Bifurcation
Don Fitz
A Statue of Hatuey
Dean Baker
Unemployment Benefits Should Depend on the Pandemic
Ramzy Baroud – Romana Rubeo
Will the ICC Investigation Bring Justice for Palestine?
Sam Pizzigati
Social Distancing for Mega-Million Fun and Profit
Dave Lindorff
Private: Why the High Dudgeon over Alleged Russian Bounties for Taliban Slaying of US Troops
George Wuerthner
Of Fire and Fish
Binoy Kampmark
Killing Koalas: the Promise of Extinction Down Under