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What Martin Luther King, at 39, taught me at 35

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Nothing makes my engine overheat more than politicians using Dr. Martin Luther King’s work, his words and his holiday to cover up for years of promoting the very injustices and racism he fought against — harnessing that hate for political prominence and power. 

I think about a sitting U.S. senator who praised King’s commitment to justice on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, pledging to recommit himself to King’s vision before single-handedly blocking an attempt to remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol.

I think of his fellow senator from Missouri, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who called King “one of the most remarkable change agents in American history,” saying that the civil rights leader “inspired the nation to strive for the greatness that comes when every man, woman and child is treated equally.”

Then, this month, Hawley appeared to egg on a mob of MAGA hat-wearing and Confederate flag-waving insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol, causing destruction and five deaths.

I think about Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), former Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and President Trump as examples from the catalogue of those who cloak themselves in King’s legacy to cover up the stain of racism — only to call it patriotism when it’s convenient. 

The truth is, you can’t love America if you act like you hate Americans, and you don’t stop being a racist on the third Monday in January just because your office issues a press release saying so.

Of course, we’re hearing a lot of folks talking about excusing the kind of actions we saw at the Capitol, saying that there are “real and just motives” at play here, that some who participated in what appeared to be an attempted coup — don’t kid yourself, it was sedition — are hurting just like we are. Some are poor, just like we are, or sick like we are, and feel abandoned, just like we feel.

But, while that might be true for some, “just motives” don’t excuse unjust action and violence, especially when you find bigotry and hate mixed in with those motives in equal, if not greater, parts. There’s a difference between a movement and a mob. A riot is not a just revolution.

That’s what King, at 39, taught me at 35, because a riot is anger and hate expressed by violence and whatever just motives might exist are burned away by the hate’s heat.

But a revolution is a sustained movement for change, built upon three simple components: the Dream, the Plan and the Priority.

The Dream is the vision, the picture of not just a house but a home. The Plan is the blueprint of that house, the materials and skills you have to work with. And the Priority is individual moments and struggles you face. You can’t build walls without a foundation. You can’t build a roof until the walls are sound. 

You see it clearly in King’s 1968 trip to Memphis supporting the Sanitation Workers’ Strike. That was the mission at hand. That was the Priority, and it was achieved not simply by speeches and demonstrations, because a movement is not built on marches alone. 

It was boycott and voter registration, moral outrage coupled with economic and political pressure. It was a commitment to do business with Black-owned banks, invest in Black-owned insurance companies, build a moral economic infrastructure, brick by brick, while mobilizing a grassroots political network for change.

That’s the Plan — the structure of the Dream.

Beyond what we typically think of as civil rights, King had moved to a wider vision of justice by the time he visited Memphis — a vision of economic justice for all. He had built a Poor People’s Campaign, dedicated to creating an America where an honest day’s work truly meant an honest day’s pay.

That’s why he told that old story of the Jewish traveler who fell among thieves on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. Although a priest and a Levite both passed by, neither man stopped to help. Then a man from another race came along — a Samaritan. 

That’s the Dream.

Of course, even with those elements in place, there’s no guarantee of success, because the best car in the world won’t take me from South Carolina to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. if I fall asleep at the wheel on I-95. 

That’s what makes King’s message more important than ever before, because, as Louis L’Amour famously wrote, “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished; that will be the beginning.”

The lynchings didn’t stop when they passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ballots weren’t open because Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We weren’t free just because Abraham Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Racism didn’t end just because we elected Barack Obama as president, and the struggle won’t end when Donald Trump leaves the White House.

If the past couple of weeks have taught us anything, it’s that a new struggle is just beginning.

Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, and a CBS News political contributor. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.

Tags Barack Obama Capitol breach Civil rights movement Donald Trump Dr. Martin Luther King Jr I Have a Dream speech Josh Hawley Racism Steve King Ted Cruz

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