MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Fifty years have passed since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of his Lorraine Motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, but today’s America is not quite the dream King famously presented just five years earlier.
That’s, at least, how West Virginia University’s David Fryson, the senior adviser for diversity and community outreach for the Office of the President, sees it.
“It’s undeniable that we have made great strides, but at the same time, there are some structural barriers that I think still portend to provide difficulties,” Fryson said Wednesday on MetroNews “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval.
Fryson said those structural barriers include economic mobility and economic opportunity, particularly when talking about equality.
“One that Martin Luther King often talked about is police brutality on the African American communities, and he said that the lives of black people are just as important as whites,” Fryson said. “Basically he was making the statement that black lives matter.”
Today, there is still often basis, whether overt or subconscious, results in the death of many young people of color when interacting with the police, he said.
Despite the progress that is still left to make, Martin Luther King Jr. made significant impact, as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, as an activist and as a minister in just 39 years.
“This celebration of the 50th year of his assassination, I think, is as important as anything that we do because it should be a day of contemplation, and at a date when our morality is in question from a evangelical church position, I think that we should look to him, not that he was a perfect person but that he articulated perfect values,” Fryson said.
Fryson describes Dr. King as perhaps the single most co-opted personality in American history.
“I think his legacy is probably more cemented in his death than what we often think of as the 1963 speech when he talks about having a dream because, I think, of the events leading to his death, the last year of his life and how he had expanded his work,” he said. “A lot of people don’t really understand that during that last year of his life, he was absolutely ostracized.”
Fryson said King had been cast out of many former circles because he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, causing some of his former allies in Washington to turn against him. Fryson said that included officials in the Johnson Administration, the FBI, and even some Civil Rights leaders.
“So his last year was one filled with depression, but it’s also during that last year that he made a pivot so that his message was one that was talking about economic justice, which included economic justice for all, not just for people of color,” Fryson said. “So I would say that his legacy should most be remembered is that he was just for fundamental fairness for all, regardless of background.”
While activists similar to King are active today, Fryson said he doesn’t believe another singular leader like Dr. King will emerge.
“When we were fighting the idea of segregation, that was a singular kind of thing that incorporated virtually everyone,” he said. “What we have now is people rising up against police shootings and people rising up against economic injustice, but I don’t think that there is now nor will ever be one figure that will galvanize us because we don’t have one rallying call.”
Fryson said institutional barriers still exist by race, but also said some of those barriers are designed to keep similar-minded people separated by race.
“Many poor whites should be more aligned with the cause of Martin Luther King because he was fighting for economic justice and fairness for all,” he said. “When he died, he was putting together a poor people’s campaign that, I think, would’ve changed the scope of his reach, stepping outside of just being a black Civil Rights leader to being a Civil Rights leader for all because Civil Rights is not just a thing of racial equality. Civil Rights is having opportunities of this American dream.”
All communities have internal struggles that must be considered in addition to external factors, Fryson said.
“Yeah, inner city crime is a problem,” Fryson said. “Rural crime is a problem. Inner city drug usage is a problem. Rural drug usage is a problem,. I just think that we can think of strategies that meet all of those who have a need, and I think it needs to be needs-based strategy.”
Had King not died prematurely, Fryson believes he could have continued to fight and expand upon those battles.
“At the time of Dr. King’s death, we were at a tipping point, so much so that I think that he was expanding the whole idea of Civil Rights into human rights,” Fryson said. “I believe, had Dr. King lived, we would have seen the amalgamation of civil and human rights. His assassination blunted the integration, so to speak, of the Civil Rights Movement.”