READY YOUR gospel choirs, America. The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is upon us, and the carnival is gearing up to sing saccharine once again. Politicians, nearly 40 years safe from that Memphis balcony, will shroud themselves in the content of his character. A few thoughtful people will dedicate a day of service to their communities. Banks may dangle checking accounts that are ''Free, Free at Last!" In San Antonio, a huge parade in honor of King will even feature a military fly-over.
The icon we celebrate today is an anodyne specter of the true article's dynamism and dissent. In a huckster nation, this opportunistic conjuring of King's brand identity is hardly surprising. But there are pressing and specific reasons to revisit the true legacy and words of the preacher from Ebenezer Baptist more carefully than we have in years past.
''We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered." King spoke these words at New York City's Riverside Church in 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated.
Powerful people fall over themselves to celebrate King's racial tonic because doing so is the deftest way to avoid the harder topic: his economic prescriptions. King's defanged biography jumps from his heroic involvement in Selma (March 1965) to his assassination (April 1968). The 1965-1968 caesura hides the critical effort of King's abbreviated life: His increasing focus on economic inequality and the launch of his Poor People's Campaign, a challenge to the most fundamental patterns of the US economy and caste system. ''Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality," he told garbage workers in Memphis the month before his assassination.
Now, as then, people are less comfortable with this King than the Benettonesque Teddy Bear we're so often peddled. Racial segregation, while endemic to our history, is indeed un-American. Economic inequality is pretty much apple pie; it's taken less seriously by elected leaders, and it has grown more pronounced since King's assassination.
In 1960, the top 20 percent of the wealthiest enjoyed 30 times the wealth of the bottom 20 percent. Four decades later, this gap increased to 75 times. More children are growing up poor in America than in any other industrial nation. Millions of workers are making less money in real dollars than they did 20 years ago. Working Americans are working on average more hours than ever before. Forty-five million Americans -- eight of 10 of whom have jobs -- have no health insurance. Overall, 37 million Americans live in poverty, and poverty levels are now on an uptick since a record low in 1973.
We've always justified economic polarization with a debatable but compelling argument: who cares if the market system yields inevitable inequalities, so long as it provides equality of opportunity? Well, we're pooching that one, too. In making college less financially accessible, Congress actively thwarts young people's opportunity for mobility. Congress recently cut nearly $13 billion from student aid, as much as doubling the interest rates of the federal educational grants on which middle- and low-income families depend. Meanwhile, the real cost of college tuition has outpaced inflation by 40 percent over the last 25 years, also outpacing the average growth of middle-class wages. Research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that a poor American child has no better chance of getting ahead than a poor child in Britain, France, Germany, or Sweden.
And yes, you can still make it racial. As Meizhu Lui of United for a Fair Economy points out, African-Americans earned, on average, 55 cents per dollar of white income the year King was assassinated. They were earning 57 cents, on average, for every dollar of white income in 2001. At that rate, we'll have income parity in 2582. Our purpose is not to be the Grinch who stole King Day. Children should still draw the March on Washington, and any day is a good day to revisit ''I Have a Dream." But, in the clap-happy kumbayah that will suffuse many of this weekend's celebrations of what King stood for, the government and the media must not deliberately forget what he stood against.
Assassins snuffed King as he began his most challenging campaign of all: the fight against inequality of capital and opportunity. Ignoring this campaign suppresses an incisive message, offering up a palliative charade precisely when his economic vision of substantive change is most needed.
Rich Benjamin is senior fellow at Demos in New York. Jamie Carmichael is a playwright.