Friday, January 16, 2009

Honoring the Real Martin Luther King Jr.

On January 20th, one day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the United States will swear in its first African-American president. The power and symbolism of that historic moment will not be lost on President Barack Obama or the millions of people listening to his inaugural address. Obama will quote King and talk about the great strides America has made toward racial equality since King's time. But President Obama could do more. He could honor and revive the full range of what King lived, worked, and died for. He could help fashion a more powerful and more accurate legacy for King. He could remind us that not only was King a champion of civil rights, he was a Christian spiritual leader and a nonviolent crusader against economic injustice and war.

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: 
"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. 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, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
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.


Camp Papa said...

When I look back with forty years of hindsight, King is all the more remarkable. I really grieve that he didn't live to help the movement grow and mature. I can remember, in my youthful ignorance, being dismayed when he began to talk about broader issues than civil rights. Then he was killed and RFK was killed and I began to realize that power concedes nothing without struggle with a counter balancing power.

Becky said...

Excellent post. And a timely reminder. I would dearly love to see BHO talk about these three issues as linked. Thanks for the schoolin'.

Phyllis said...

(Catching up on back entries, apparently.)

As someone else said, service is great, but it has very little to do with MLKJ. I was disappointed that we didn't concentrate more on the serious social justice and human rights issues this amazing man dedicated his life to and instead sidelined to something more socially acceptable.