King's vision lives on, but some fear for its future The DREAM AND ITS LEGACY

January 20, 1992|By Michael Saunders and Tao Woolfe | Michael Saunders and Tao Woolfe,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

The message, in its ultimate blossoming, evolves into The Dream: a peaceful world united by love, regardless of race, religion, sex or nationality.

It is the philosophy that led the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to a Nobel Peace Prize and to an assassin's bullet.

His memory will be honored today, the seventh official observance of his birthday as a national holiday, with parades and celebrations across the country.

But what has happened to his message?

Has The Dream faded, dimmed by two decades of conservative politics, too few jobs and too many jobless, and a failure to pass the message to the next generation?

Or is The Dream as clear as ever, shared by all those who seek equality across a spectrum of causes?

"I think his message has expanded as shown by the strength of other equality movements. Without his message we wouldn't have had the strength to form the women's movement, the gay and lesbian rights movement, the handicapped movement," said Alison Weatherfield,spokeswoman for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"The message has been transformed to say the law must treat us equally, or it must be changed."

Those who knew Dr. King or were old enough to learn from his teachings, before his assassination in 1968, got the message loudly and clearly, from Dr. King's oratory in Washington, his sermons in Atlanta, or the grainy television footage of marchers set upon by police dogs and pounded with water cannons.

Dr. King's universal theme is the impetus behind new movements, said Dennis Delia, president of Gays United to Attack Repression and Discrimination. "He inspired me to become an activist and taught me there's a lot more to life than earning a paycheck," he said. "When people tell me to stop rocking the boat, I read his 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail.'

Sara Bullard, spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said we all must be Kings.

"I think society needs a whole lot of people who follow King's message, which is universal," she said. "It's important we remember the truth of his message of non-violence and fairness. His was not a radical philosophy; it was the message of the principles our country was founded on." For Dr. King's generation, The Dream will never die.

But some are worried about the generations to come.

Roosevelt Walters, president of the Fort Lauderdale branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, fears that somewhere along the line, he and his peers grew complacent.

"We don't tell our children about Martin Luther King and the role he played. It should have been handed down from me to my children to their children," Mr. Walters said. "When we die out, then the dream will be laid to rest."

More likely, a different dream will arise. These days, many young people grant another slain activist, Malcolm X, with more credibility.

Phillip Striggers, a junior at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale: "My generation thinks differently because we don't have the knowledge our parents had at my age. Martin Luther King went about things slowly, negotiating with whites. Malcolm X said there was no time for peace. It's time to take what's yours."

Dr. King's platform of civil rights, integration and non-violence was the only alternative after Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, said his widow, Betty Shabazz. But what is misunderstood most about her husband, Ms. Shabazz said, is that his message was broader than his best-known quotation, "By any means necessary," and embraced more than civil rights.

"He supported expanding the agenda to full human rights. He wanted immediate and sweeping changes," said Ms. Shabazz, an administrator at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Delray Beach, Fla., architect Thaddeus Cohen, chairman of the Council for Black Economic Development, said the greater awareness of the message of Malcolm X is due in part to geography. Urban life and its stresses call for more drastic solutions, he said. "King's audience was not only blacks but a general audience as well. Malcolm X's focus was on knowing one's self, self-promotion, self-awareness. . . . It was more about getting your own house in order," he said.

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