It is a testimony to the power of King's life and activism that principles of racial equality have taken such deep root in our national consciousness. Parts of his "I Have a Dream" speech are as well known as any great words from American history. Today, his name is practically unassailable in any discussion on racial equality and civil rights. That in itself is an enormous, historic victory.
But to remember King solely as a black civil rights leader is to ignore his real vision. King talked about the "Triple Evils" of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation, and he viewed these things as inextricably linked. In his sermons, especially later in his life, he rarely talked about one of these evils without talking about the other two. According to King, we won't really kick racism, until we kick militarism and economic exploitation.
The Evil of Militarism
In the mid 1960s, King grew increasingly outspoken in opposition to the war in Vietnam and US foreign policy in general. King said that in Vietnam and in Latin America, the US was "on the wrong side of a world revolution," where the US allied itself with "the landed gentry" against people seeking reform. He believed that we would never have the resources we need for domestic priorities as long as we poured our money into foreign wars and the occupation of foreign land.
One of his most powerful remarks:
The Evil of Economic Exploitation
In the late 1960s, King increasingly emphasized issues of economic justice. In 1968, he organized the Poor People's Campaign to assemble a "multi-racial army of the poor" to march on Washington. He referred to the Poor People's Campaign as the "second phase" of the civil rights movement, where the "first phase" had focused on the segregation problem. He called for massive public works projects to rebuild American cities and create jobs. He criticized Congress for providing military funding with "alacrity and generosity" while providing "poverty funds with miserliness."
In a speech called "Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence," King said:
"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
That sort of radical talk brought on the scorn of the Establishment. King was lambasted in national media as a communist working for Radio Hanoi. The FBI continued its campaign of surveillance, intimidation, and blackmail and against King. Organizing black people for civil rights was subversive enough, but organizing poor people for economic justice and an end to American militarism was too threatening to too many powerful people. When King was killed on April 4th, 1968, he was in Memphis to support a strike by city sanitation workers.
Conspiracy or not, I think it's a general rule that those who do too much good too quickly will be killed one way or another.
Renewing the Battle Against the 'Triple Evils'
We only got a glimpse of what it might look like for King to take on the Triple Evils all at once, as part of a national movement. King did not have much time in the "second phase" of his movement before he was gunned down. We've never had a president or a serious presidential contender articulate a Kingian vision. Perhaps the 1968 campaign of Robert Kennedy came closest, but he was shot down during that campaign, just two months after King.
It's past time for us to take up King's banner again. What better time to do it than the inaugural address of our first African-American president? Barack Obama will take the podium on Tuesday with a tremendous level of support and good will from Americans and people all over the world. He will certainly invoke the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. It's up to him whether he invokes a safe, one-dimensional civil rights leader or the real man, a crusader against the Triple Evils. It's up to President Obama whether we celebrate past victories or prepare for future ones.