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 fundamental 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 instinct 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 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 was 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.