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Rev­erend Martin Luther King Jr.‘s mugshot (Photo: Wiki­media Commons)

Our society and edu­cation system has failed to under­stand the true extent of Rev­erend Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy as a great American in our arduous and pro­tracted history of the struggle for freedom and justice.

As an activist, King valued each and every human life, judging them not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their char­acter.” Yet, his mission went far beyond race into ques­tions of human dignity and America’s values. He wrote in an essay, “The black rev­o­lution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is, rather, forcing America to face all its inter­re­lated flaws: racism, poverty, mil­i­tarism, and mate­ri­alism.”

King stood out for his non­vi­olent form of activism. As a preacher, he embodied the doc­trine of turning the other cheek and loving your enemies orig­i­nally pro­posed by Jesus Christ two mil­lennia ago. Not only did King see peace as a nec­essary ethic for any person, but he thought it was the most effective means to end racial injustice.

Integral to his belief in peaceful activism, the rev­erend unapolo­get­i­cally demanded equality through civil dis­obe­dience. He con­demned slow progress in favor of imme­diate reforms through “mil­itant, pow­erful, massive non­vi­o­lence” in “The Other America” and “I Have a Dream.” 

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tran­quil­izing drug of grad­u­alism,” he said in “I have a Dream.” In his essay titled “Letter from a Birm­ingham Jail,” he wrote, “…freedom is never vol­un­tarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Along with his com­mitment to non­vi­o­lence, King urged under­standing of people who act vio­lently against sys­temic oppression.

In “The Other America” he said, “But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irre­spon­sible for me to do that without, at the same time, con­demning the con­tingent, intol­erable con­di­tions that exist in our society. These con­di­tions are the things that cause indi­viduals to feel that they have no other alter­native than to engage in violent rebel­lions.”

Today, exer­cising this phi­losophy could help us discern how best to elim­inate the cir­cum­stances that drive people toward vio­lence. In another speech called “Beyond Vietnam,” King said, “Here is the true meaning and value of com­passion and non­vi­o­lence. When it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his ques­tions, to know his assessment of our­selves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weak­nesses of our own con­dition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the oppo­sition.”

A strong desire from King to appre­ciate and acknowledge neg­ative per­cep­tions of his country and culture is what made him a true rev­o­lu­tionary. In the same speech, King said, “The Western arro­gance of feeling that it has every­thing to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

King saw the black freedom endeavor as one that’s inter­con­nected with the struggle against empire around the world. In his later years, he became the most out­spoken critic of the Vietnam war. In “Beyond Vietnam,” King said, “I knew that America would never invest the nec­essary funds or energies in reha­bil­i­tation of its poor so long as adven­tures like Vietnam con­tinued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”

He also rec­og­nized the U.S.’s role in oppressing Vietnam, falling “victim to the deadly Western arro­gance that has poi­soned the inter­na­tional atmos­phere for so long.” He noted, “Even though the Viet­namese quoted the American Dec­la­ration of Inde­pen­dence in their own doc­ument of freedom, we refused to rec­ognize them.”

He con­tinued to attack U.S. impe­ri­alism. “A nation that con­tinues year after year to spend more money on mil­itary defense than on pro­grams of social uplift is approaching spir­itual death.” The dis­senting American leader indicted his own gov­ernment as “the greatest pur­veyor of vio­lence in the world today.”

In the last few years of his life, King focused on sup­porting worker unions and orga­nized labor. While fighting for better wages and safer working con­di­tions, he boldly declared, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and impor­tance and should be under­taken with painstaking excel­lence.”

King believed that without a “radical redis­tri­b­ution of political and eco­nomic power” America would never solve its racial and eco­nomic injustice. In a speech called “All Labor Has Dignity,” King quoted Walter Reuther, a UAW union leader, and used his def­i­n­ition of eco­nomic power.

“Walter Reuther said once that ‘power is the ability of a labor union like UAW to make the most pow­erful cor­po­ra­tions in the world — General Motors — say yes when it wants to say no.’”

King aimed to restore the power to change wages and acquire safer working con­di­tions to laborers instead of owners through mass asso­ci­ation and sol­i­darity — a message that a rel­a­tively pow­erless labor force nowadays should cer­tainly organize around.

The rev­erend also despised the mate­ri­alism that our country seemed to value above all. He called it in “The Three Evils of Society,” observing that “we are now expe­ri­encing the coming to the surface of a triple prong sickness that has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning. That is the sickness of racism, excessive mate­ri­alism and mil­i­tarism.”

Addi­tionally, in “Beyond Vietnam” he argued, “We must rapidly begin to 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, mil­i­tarism, and eco­nomic exploitation are inca­pable of being con­quered.”

Most striking, though, is how an ever-evolving King came to see cap­i­talism toward the end of his life. His ques­tions regarding the rela­tionship between cap­i­talism and the poor became central to his movement. “True com­passion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar,” King said. “It comes to see that an edifice which pro­duces beggars needs restruc­turing.”

King saw a con­nection between the plight of black Amer­icans and cap­i­talism. “The evils of cap­i­talism are as real as the evils of mil­i­tarism and evils of racism,” he said in an address to the Southern Christian Lead­ership Con­ference board in 1967. He even sug­gested a con­tro­versial welfare policy: the uni­versal basic income.

King’s radical ideas stemmed from a reli­gious per­spective, too. “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it pos­sible for all of God’s children to have the basic neces­sities of life,” he said, “she too will go to hell.”

He even­tually called for a mixed market system: “Com­munism forgets that life is indi­vidual. Cap­i­talism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of broth­erhood is found neither in the thesis of com­munism nor the antithesis of cap­i­talism but in a higher syn­thesis.” He also thought it “a crime” that people living in the richest country in the world received star­vation wages.

Most impor­tantly, he never dis­con­nected the oppressive history of America from its eco­nomic system. “The fact is that cap­i­talism was built on the exploitation and suf­fering of black slaves, and con­tinues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor: both black and white, both here and abroad,” King said. Fifty years later, the U.S. exports exploitation of the poor to Asia, its com­panies enforcing atro­cious working con­di­tions and wage levels in order to man­u­facture goods for its cit­izens.

King’s racial justice movement suc­cess­fully tran­si­tioned into an aptly named Poor People’s Cam­paign. The new crusade demanded a revamped bill of eco­nomic rights, including a massive gov­ernment spending project on cities and infra­structure. Up to 50,000 Amer­icans par­tic­i­pated in a protest camp on the Wash­ington Mall, but King was not among them; he had been fatally shot in the head about one month earlier at the young age of 39. It’s only fitting to honor King’s bril­liant exam­i­nation of America’s insti­tu­tions by shedding light on all of his analyses, not just the ones we agree with.

Cal Abbo is a freshman studying the liberal arts.