Center for American Progress

The Dream Reborn: Remembering Martin Luther King Jr., Forty Years On

The Dream Reborn: Remembering Martin Luther King Jr., Forty Years On

Honoring a death too early, Americans commit to a green and equitable future, write Bracken Hendricks and Benjamin Goldstein.

MEMPHIS, TN—On April 4, 1968 an assassin in Memphis robbed America of one of its greatest leaders amid a contentious sanitation workers strike that defined in so many ways Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to social justice. On this 40th anniversary of his death we celebrate the vision and the dream of Dr. King—a vision that could not be extinguished by a single act of violence, and a dream reborn continually in each succeeding generation.

Today, we renew his call to action. The United States of America can, and must, make good on its promissory note of equality, opportunity, and justice for all its children. On this day in Memphis and around the country there will be numerous events commemorating the grief of this anniversary, and the triumph of our nation’s refusal to let hope die. The Center for American Progress is especially proud to be involved in one especially meaningful event: “The Dream Reborn,” convened by our partner organization, Green for All.

“The Dream Reborn” is a first-of-its-kind gathering, bringing together over 1,000 leaders and activists from around the country to recommit to Dr. King’s movement for civil rights and economic justice—this time interwoven with a call for a positive vision of environmental stewardship and the creation of dignified “green collar” jobs. Today, we honor and recommit to Dr. King’s unfulfilled quest 40 years ago to empower impoverished sanitation workers, among so many others, as we renew this progressive movement, with the rallying cry: “Green Jobs, not Jails.”

Creating good jobs in a green economy draws attention to that most fundamental question facing any society, but especially a mighty and prosperous one: What kind of world do we want to build with the wealth and power at our disposal? As we remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is critically important that we commemorate this anniversary by acting upon not just the injustices we will fight but also the vision of justice, hope, and social uplift we will fight for.

Organizing around “green jobs” must now be at the heart of a renewed national movement dedicated to the propositions of rebuilding hope, reconstructing pathways to opportunity, and restoring dignity. Assembling the activists and leaders that make up “The Dream Reborn” gathering in Memphis today gives voice and structure to a new and central organizing principle for the modern civil rights movement—a green vision grounded in the needs of people. Building on a generation of hard work for environmental justice, this effort takes head-on the modern face of ancient patterns of discrimination, exploitation, and lost opportunity. The rebirth of our movement responds with a call for a better future—a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.

Toward the end of his life Martin Luther King, Jr. was organizing what remains some of the most important unfinished business of the civil rights movement: a great poor people’s campaign to advance the struggle for economic justice. This effort represented an expansion of the core work of the civil rights movement, which had fought for and won equal treatment under the law for descendants of African slaves and the whole American family.

The Poor People’s Campaign sought to overturn disenfranchisement and Jim Crow with a call of conscience to the broader culture to upend larger social and economic institutions that disadvantaged millions. It reached out to poor white miners in Appalachia; to Asian sweatshop laborers in Los Angeles; to Native Americans suffering poverty on reservations; to eastern European immigrants in Northeastern cities; to Latino farm workers struggling to form labor unions; and to African-American sanitation workers seeking better working conditions, benefits, and the right to organize.

This vision was a call to action as complete as it was unifying, built on the best traditions of American democracy and moral philosophy and appealing to the highest promise of the American Dream—a dream strong enough to forge a common people from a divided nation. When Dr. King was assassinated, he left behind the foundations of a movement intact, but wounded and demoralized from the loss of his energetic leadership.

Today, 40 years on, we find new occasion to rekindle and revitalize the Poor People’s Campaign around an expanded set of principles that now must include an injustice unforeseen in Dr. King’s time: global warming, and its disproportionate effects on the poor and marginalized people of America and the world, accompanied by a call for equal access to the benefits of a green economy.

We face a climate crisis of unimaginable dimensions. To some it may not seem obvious how this scientific and environmental threat is linked to the Poor People’s Campaign, or can serve as the next step in the struggle to win enduring civil rights. But the connection is deep, it is immediate, and it must become a central theme to organize our politics.

Unless checked, the consequences of global warming will be devastating, and they will be felt hardest by those with the fewest resources to buy their way to safety. From rising floodwaters, to increased famine, fires, and vectors of disease, to dwindling supplies of fresh drinking water, the social, economic, and environmental costs of an unchecked climate crisis will be great. Hurricane Katrina has already shown us the face of climate refugees on our own shores.

But with every crisis comes an opportunity. And here, the chance to solve global warming can mean investing in a more just, equitable, and sustainable future for all Americans. We can rebuild our communities around energy efficiency and quality of life. We can make transportation more accessible and affordable. And we can clean the air to protect our children’s health.

Building a green America and a green global economy means creating jobs, crafting new forms of economic development, and revitalizing our manufacturing base to supply the need for clean energy and more efficient products. If this rebuilding of America is done correctly, it has the potential to create the just and equitable society Dr. King envisioned, while confronting the challenge of global warming head-on.

The goal of the sanitation worker’s strike forty years ago in Memphis, organized with the public worker’s union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and supported by Dr. King, was to secure better working conditions, benefits, and the right to organize. The new movement for “green collar jobs” builds on this legacy, seeking decent, family-supporting wages, from good jobs in the coming green economy, especially for those disadvantaged by the old, pollution-based economy.

These are good, American jobs that cannot be outsourced because the work needs to be done right here in our communities. If properly constructed, a green economy will offer opportunities for those most in need, by building strong ladders into the middle class through safe and dignified working conditions—creating a just and equitable society that makes good on Dr. King’s grand vision.

The way forward will not be easy. The path we are on today—toward catastrophic climate change—is similar to the path Martin Luther King Jr. warned against in his statements on the dangers of escalating and ever more lethal warfare.

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or non-existence.”

In the face of global warming we must expand our vision of non-violence to include our daily violence upon the planet itself, and the violence we commit upon each other and our very future in a contemporary economy that perpetuates poverty and pollution. We must find a better path. Committing to civil rights and nonviolent change today requires at its core that we commit to tackle the challenge of global warming and that we marshal the tools of green jobs and a green economy.

Yet the struggles of the Civil Rights movement and the Poor People’s Campaign were likewise neither easy nor automatic. The energy that fed these movements came from the diversity of the coalitions involved: the faith community, organized labor, civil rights activists, students, and many others. And when the “Dream Reborn” gathers in Memphis, all these members of the American family will be together in the room, ready to revitalize Dr. King’s vision around the opportunity of an inclusive green economy.

The Center for American Progress is proud to be working with communities from Newark, New Jersey, to Oakland, California, to Washington, D.C. to build those alternatives in bricks and mortar and real jobs for working people, and proud, too, to be advancing a national policy vision with a green and just economy at its core. We are honored to stand with our many partners, such as Green For All, in helping forge this emerging movement that joins our hope for the survival of the planet with an understanding that this will only come about on the foundations of social equity.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously preached that “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” He stood before violence and exploitation and conquered it with peace and the refusal to harm. The climate crisis today exposes these same old fault lines on a new and global scale.

We must honor Dr, King’s legacy by pledging to forge a positive path forward that truly and indelibly offers “green for all.”

Today, as our economy slips into recession weighed down further by crumbling factories, neglected housing, and infrastructure in disrepair, we must remember that inequitable growth, founded on pollution and inefficiency, cannot deliver just prosperity and a thriving planet. Only green reconstruction of the foundations of our economy and our communities, committed to the common good, can realize that promise.

This is why we rededicate ourselves on this momentous anniversary to understand clearly the better future we wish to build—founded on a green and just prosperity. Only then can we finally say we have achieved our goal of a “Dream Reborn” and honor Dr. King’s prophetic words delivered to an earlier generation of progressive activists:

Through our scientific genius we have made of this world a neighborhood. Now through our moral and spiritual development, we must make of it a brotherhood. In a real sense we must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Bracken Hendricks

Senior Fellow