What King Really Dreamed In this week's opinion page, writer Rich Benjamin explains why he believes the Martin Luther King, Jr. we celebrate today is a diluted version of the man and his words.

What King Really Dreamed

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Each week we feature the author of an op-ed from the Sunday papers. Today our guest is Rich Benjamin. He's a senior fellow at Demos, a New York-based think tank which studies Democratic and economic issues in America. His article about the Martin Luther King holiday appeared in yesterday's Boston Globe titled: Kingapalooza and the Economic Inequality(ph). He argues that we often celebrate a `cuddly' version of the man and ignore his less-comfortable message about poverty and economic inequality.

What do you celebrate about Martin Luther King Jr. today? What part of his message still resonates with you? Give us a phone call. Our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail: totn@npr.org. Rich Benjamin joins us now from our bureau in New York.

And thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. RICH BENJAMIN (Senior Fellow, Demos): Great to be here, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I should note you were the co-author of this piece in The Boston Globe, along with Jamie Carmichael. I wanted to give equal credit there, of course.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Great.

CONAN: Now you talked about the Martin Luther King holiday, you know. To some degree, it's become what American three-day weekends all are, an excuse to shop, some parades, of course, and of course recognition of the man whose name this holiday bears.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Yes, I would agree with that.

CONAN: And some people, of course, have dedicated their Martin Luther King Day observances to community service of one sort or another. But you say that in the midst of all of this, a message gets lost.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Very much, and I--that message is what Dr. King stood for in terms of economic inequality. And so it's safer, especially for politicians, to talk about his racial (technical difficulties) "I Have a Dream" speech. It had a great (technical difficulties). But what about the other things King said, which are more relevant than ever?

CONAN: And so you would argue his campaign against poverty and, also, his opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Exactly. Right before King was assassinated, he began what he called the Poor People's Campaign, which amounted to an economic Bill of Rights. And when you look at the national celebrations today, many of those celebrations don't emphasize that important part of his message.

CONAN: The reason he was in Memphis, after all, the place, of course, where he was assassinated, was to support a strike by municipal workers, garbage workers.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Exactly.

CONAN: And how did that work into his idea of a campaign against poverty?

Mr. BENJAMIN: That was part--that was just one element of his campaign on poverty. He launched the campaign in poverty in Washington, DC, and he was reminded of when veterans marched on Washington in the 1930s to secure better benefits, having served our country honorably in the military.

CONAN: To sign a so-called Bonus Army?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Exactly.

CONAN: And this was something that he wanted to emulate?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Very much so. He wanted to bring to Washington's doorstep a message of why so many Americans are living in poverty when we were the richest nation on Earth.

CONAN: And that message--and he spoke about it extensively--that message is not for African-Americans alone.

Mr. BENJAMIN: No, not at all. It's for all Americans.

CONAN: He used to always point out that the majority of those in poverty are white people.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Yes, that's true, and it's still true to this day.

CONAN: There was an interesting quote that you included in this piece that was published in The Boston Globe yesterday: `We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society, when machines and computers, profit motors and property rights are considered more important than people. The giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.' I can't deliver that with anything like his power or rhythm, but I think the message still comes through.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, it's a good effort. And I feel that when people closed their eyes and they heard those words, just as you delivered them, you would have thought someone delivered those words yesterday; they're still that relevant. But, in fact, he delivered them 40 years ago, and he had his finger on what was happening then and what would happen in the next 40 years.

CONAN: Where was this campaign against poverty? Where do you think he was taking it?

Mr. BENJAMIN: I think he was taking it in terms of wages, he was taking it in terms of income, he was taking it in terms of the inequality in America in terms of wages and income and wealth. He felt that wealth was unfairly, unevenly distributed between the rich and the poor.

CONAN: And in some respects, of course, those calculations have not improved a great deal in the time since he lived, though everybody's--you have to begin with everybody's income going up.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Yes. They have not improved, and in some cases the situation has gotten worse. We have a case where a lot of Americans are working hard, they're more productive than in the past, they're working longer hours than in the past, but when you count for real wages, their wages are either stagnating or going down.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. What message of Martin Luther King Jr. do you celebrate on this day set aside to mark his birthday? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK; the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

We'll begin with John; John calling from Prescott, Arizona.

JOHN (Caller): Yeah, I just wanted to say that I'm proud as an individual to celebrate Martin Luther King Day in Arizona, which was actually a fight, I guess, for the political system to have here. But, also, I was wondering if there was any quality control over his statements or his message between the real man and the myth and what--the deciphering of the two men. And, also, I was wondering in that quality control, if you buy something that has Martin Luther King statements on it or passages on it, would it necessarily go to the family of his relatives or to--who would that necessarily go to?

CONAN: Yeah, there's also the matter of histories involved here.

JOHN: Right.

CONAN: But, Rich Benjamin, I was--there's a lot in there, but go ahead.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Oh, there's certainly no quality control. This is America we're talking about, where anyone will use anything to sell anything. So, for example, Howard Stern's new radio show had a huge billboard in Chicago that said, `Let freedom ring. Let it be rung by a stripper.' And so you have all sorts of different examples of people using his name to hawk something or to sell something, which he probably wouldn't have stood for.

CONAN: He might not have been happy about it. That's entirely the case.

JOHN: Yeah.

CONAN: In terms of use of his image, though, and his exact words to sell whatever message, whether it's a commercial or non-commercial, I know that his family and the King Foundation have tried to establish control over that.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Yes, they've...

JOHN: And, I mean, it's--so he's pretty much just owned by the American people?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Some of his myth is owned, but some of his speeches, his sermons and his writings are, of course, copyrighted. But there are other parts of his image that--as Neal suggests, they're part of the public domain as part of history, and so they have no copyright or no quality control, as you call it.

CONAN: I'm not sure that George Washington would be entirely pleased to be hawking used car sales every year not far from this time either. So I guess it all goes around.


JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: John, thanks very much.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Thank you. Yeah.

CONAN: Let's talk with Alfonso. Alfonso's calling us from Greensboro, North Carolina.

ALFONSO (Caller): Yeah, there's an interest in the politicians in this time to have a kind of a photo op with a racial message of Martin Luther King, as the guest was saying, I think, very accurately. But there's very little in the ...(unintelligible) when we speak about this legislation of 17 million people that represent a minority in this country, and they want some kind of equality. And those politicians are stepping on these people more than thinking on the photo op of the racial message of "I Have a Dream" of Martin Luther King. Would that not be a good moment for reflection about a man that defend the rights of minorities? And some will say they're illegal; some, they say they are to be commended. But actually they're working for--they belong to that big range of poverty that he fought for.

CONAN: Rich Benjamin, what do you think?

Mr. BENJAMIN: I think there's a lot of truth to what your caller just said. I think, for example, if we look at the president, who's just one American, he's going to spend the day at the Lincoln Memorial, he's going to review the Emancipation Proclamation, and then he's going to a gospel concert tonight. Now all of those activities are well and good, but they're just, you know, I guess, mythical and feel-good ways to celebrate only part of what Dr. King stood for. And as the caller said, we can reflect on what he said about economic inequality and non-violence. So that's just one example of politicians wrapping themselves in the content of his character and the feel-good quality of his racial harmony.

CONAN: Do you think, though, that despite what I guess you're describing as hypocrisies this regard, that these things shouldn't be done?

Mr. BENJAMIN: No, of course they should be done. And it's not simply that it's hypocritical. It's more that it's incomplete. That's the problem; it's incomplete.

CONAN: So not that we should ignore "I Have a Dream" or, I think as you put it in your piece, `schoolchildren should still be assigned to draw pictures of the march on Washington,' and that sort of thing, but there are other parts of this that we also should be looking at.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Yes. And because they're more timely than ever.

CONAN: Alfonso, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Thank you.

CONAN: On our Opinion Page today, we're talking with Rich Benjamin, a senior fellow at Demos (pronounced dee-moss). By the way, am I pronouncing that correctly?

Mr. BENJAMIN: It's Demos (pronounced dee-mohs), yes.

CONAN: Demos (pronounced dee-mohs). That's a think tank that's based in New York City devoted to Democratic and economic issues in America. He wrote an op-ed in this past Sunday's Boston Globe called Kingapalooza and Economic Inequality. If you'd like to join the conversation, (800) 989-8255. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is Brad. Brad's calling us from Salt Lake City.

BRAD (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BRAD: I wanted to ask your guest about another aspect of King's legacy that I think is often neglected, and that is he clearly had goals that he wanted to pursue regarding racial equality. He wanted to do something about poverty. He wanted to do something about the war in Vietnam. But the means by which he tried to achieve those goals--in other words, eschewing violence, and not only eschewing violence but his belief that through non-violent, direct action, you could accomplish the kind of dramatic and systemic transformation that most people would consider to be impossible without resorting to some kind of violence. You know, a revolution without violence is not a--isn't necessarily something that makes sense to most people.

CONAN: Rich Benjamin, that another part of the message?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Yes. His message on non-violent, I believe, has become less popular in this day and age, although the world has always been violent. And we see examples of violence all over from political groups, activist groups from Chechnya to this side of the globe. So I agree, we very much need to vitalize his message on non-violence, and I think non-violence seems to be very much out of favor these days.

CONAN: Can you think of a way that that might, as you say, be vitalized?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, I think we could do that by highlighting examples of conflicts that have been resolved through non-violence as opposed to immediate military action as a first and not last way to solve the conflict.

CONAN: OK. Brad, thanks very much for the phone call.

BRAD: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can talk now, if I can find the right button--this is Bineh(ph)--I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly--in Newark, New Jersey.

BINEH (Caller): Yes, you got it right.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

BINEH: Yes, I just want to say my thoughts on such a great day that Martin Luther King's legacy constitutes the primary definition of intelligence in our--today's culture. I mean, his legacy has come exactly at the right moment and confront ...(unintelligible) to maintain such a legacy has begun in our history. He's a man--or he was a man who has clearness and downright simplicity of statements. You know, he has vast comprehensiveness of topics that really affecting today's communities. He has keen analysis and suggestions to overcome difficulties. And then he has the power of disentangling complicated proposition and then resolving it in elements so plain as to reach the most common mind. You know, he has the vigor and generalization, and all this he planted amid the arguments of a whole bunch of truth. You know, those are my contributions toward the great Martin Luther King. He was a great mind and a philanthropic, you know, in our community. Thank you very much.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Thank you.

CONAN: He was also a man of eloquence, Bineh, and I think you've certainly emulated that today. We appreciate the phone call.

BINEH: Thank you.

CONAN: That was quite something. In fact, if it is a pity that we remember the message--or most of us remember the message of Martin Luther King Jr. on just one day of the year, at least we do remember it on that one day of the year, as we were mentioning earlier in that phone call from Arizona. It was a struggle just to get this holiday in all 50 states.

Mr. BENJAMIN: It was, it was, it was. People forget that because that was 20 years ago. It's the 20th anniversary of the holiday, and people forget the work and the fight that went into making this a national holiday.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in--Terry. Terry, this--calling from Flagstaff, Arizona.

TERRY (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

TERRY: Well, you know, Martin Luther King meant a lot to me. Twenty years ago I was fortunate enough to become a retail manager with one of the larger big-box companies. And the legacy that I left behind with three of these companies over the 20 years was the fact I wanted to make sure diversity was working in the stores that I managed. And it was very important for me to hire and mentor and train people of all colors and help them move up and just make it work in the retail industry.

CONAN: Terry, that doesn't sound like a project you can do one day of the year.

TERRY: No, it wasn't. It was very difficult at first. I remember my first managers' meeting, there were 300 managers, and I was the only person of color in the building.

CONAN: And over the years how much did that change?

TERRY: I think that I saw a pretty decent change. One of the things a vice president told me once--that he was really impressed with the mentoring in my individual stores, and he challenged me to mentor the other general managers throughout the company to do the same thing. So it meant a lot to me to be able to do that, but that's the legacy Martin Luther King's left with me. And I still am in retail as a general manager, and I work on that every day.

CONAN: Terry, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.

TERRY: Great show.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Thank you, Terry.

CONAN: And, Rich Benjamin, thank you for joining us today. We appreciate it.

Mr. BENJAMIN: All right, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Rich Benjamin is a senior fellow at Demos, a New York-based think tank devoted to Democratic and economic issues in America. He, along with Jamie Carmichael, wrote an op-ed about the Martin Luther King holiday in yesterday's Boston Globe titled Kingapalooza and Economic Inequality.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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