Remembering Martin Luther King in the Scales of History

April 13, 2014

African American Breakthrough Series

Consistent with the Kwanzaa principle Kujichagulia, we are proud to celebrate the history and contribution of African Americans.  Our breakthrough series highlights the ideas, theories, events, and technological inventions, of African Americans, which changed and shaped the lives of African Americans and advanced human civilization.  This article reflects on the teachings and legacy of Martin Luther King 46 years after his sacrifice that infamous day, April 4, 1968.

Why We Need Martin Luther King Jr., Voice Today

martin-luther-kingAs a Christian who drew from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, it is prophetic that Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr.’s sacrifice Day would come in the month of April, which is associated death of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.  Today, more than ever, it seems we need to resurrect the voice and insights of King to bring clarity and direction in resolving the interlocking crisis of race and class which stands in the way of King’s Beloved Community and America realizing it potential as a just society.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s contribution to America and indeed the world cannot be overstated.  King left both an activist/spiritual and moral/intellectual legacy that has been employed in freedom struggles around the world.  For example, Egyptian activist used and referenced to Kings teaching during the uprising at Tahrir Square at the height of the Egyptian Revolution, which overthrew the dictator, Hosni Mubarak.  Freedom fighters such as Nelson Mandela drew inspiration and direction from King.  And, recently Rune Kier – Danish Ministry for Climate, Energy and Building, penned an article entitled: Fifty years after Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, the European Union still could learn a lot from his words. Moreover, King’s influence continues to span the globe as noted by BET.

Martin Luther King’s Legacy

MLK as an activist will be remembered for the freedom marches he led and helped to organize in the South, which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting rights Act.  These two landmark pieces of legislation served to benefit all American citizens and moved America closer to adherence to its principles and statement set forth in its founding document, The Declaration of Independence.

Too, MLK’s I Have A Dream Speech, cemented his name in history and inspired a generation and a nation to reimagine a new America, unburden with the corrosive debilitating effects of discrimination and hatred, driven by love and the unity of all races, and full of opportunity for everyone based on their human potential and character.  The “Dream” speech made Americans, in particular African Americans, more hopeful that change was possible and America could be a “colored blind” society.

During the last three years of his life, which were the most radical and threating, King called for a revolution in values and launched and all-out assault against the triple dangers of racism, materialism, and militarism.  This stands as one of the enduring contributions of MLK.  What is often overlooked in discussing King is his critique of America, which is still much in play and relevant today.  The angst that many Americans are feeling about race, war, and their financial well-being, for example, can be traced to Kings critique of the triple evils devouring America.

More than a critique, King believed that the triple interlocking evils of racism, materialism, and militarism, were at the root of human suffering, both in America and abroad, and he believed that these three evils had to be confronted and overcome in order to transform America into a truly human society where it could fulfill and realize its historical promise and potential.

First, King saw racism as a cancer which spread beyond America.  “Racism,” he asserted, “and its perennial ally—economic exploitation—provide[s] the key to understanding most of the international complications of this generation.”  Liking racism to a disease, King further stated, “History has shown that, like a virulent disease germ, racism can grow and destroy nations.”  And, unlike the craven speech and posturing today, which tires to dismiss racism as a thing of the past in favor of a “post-racial” society, he gave a sobering diagnosis and prognosis of racism:

For too long the depth of racism in American life has been underestimated.  The surgery to extract it is necessarily complex and detailed.  As a beginning it is important to X-ray our history and reveal the full extent of the disease.  The racism of today is real, but the democratic spirit that has always face it is equally real.

Second, King was critical of American capitalism, believing that it turned people into things, consequently fostering values dehumanized relationships and delimited America’s potential.  As writer and elder stateswoman Grace Boggs notes, “in his major writings and speeches in the last two years of his life (Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos? and Time to Break Silence), King began to project a new kind of radical revolution that would begin the shift from a “thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”

Boggs further observes that King rejected priority of technology over people and technology as an equalizer as is touted today.  In fact, prophetically, he saw that the technology of today- iPhones, ipads, texting, twitter, Facebook- to name just a few would untether our relationships and make us less human and less empathetic.

Moreover as Boggs points out King believed that technology, “diminishes people because it eliminates their sense of participation. Thus, King warned repeatedly, “Enlarged material powers,” spell enlarged peril if there is no proportionate growth of the soul…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.”  And, he punctuated his concern the seductive attraction to technology, stating: Nothing in our glittering technology can raise man to new heights, because material growth has been made an end in itself, and, in the absence of moral purpose, man himself becomes smaller as the works of man become bigger.”

Next, King argued that the third triple evil, militarism, was the death knell of America.  “A nation,” he wrote, “that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  Unlike so many of today, King could not live or tolerate the cognitive dissonance of support war aboard but railing against violence at home. In a speech called Beyond Vietnam, king shocked the nation, saying: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today–my own government.”

What is to be done: Toward a True Revolution

One of the most important legacies of MLK was his call and push for a new value system that would transform our political economy and our relationship with each other.  King understood that the triple evils of racism, materialism, and militarism were grounded in the American value system and that the fight for freedom and full citizenship for blacks and other Americans had to called for a more radical and comprehensive approach.  As Grace Boggs observes:

Viewing Martin Luther King, Jr., as a revolutionary is in sharp contrast to the official view of him as simply an advocate for the rights of African Americans within the current system. In the last two years of his life, confronted with problems that required more complex solutions than visions of Black and White children marching hand in hand, King began to explore a new kind of revolution, one that would challenge all the values and institutions of our society and combine the struggle against racism with a struggle against poverty, militarism, and materialism.

Thus, as the Civil Rights Movement progressed toward the completion of its mission, King saw that civil rights alone was not enough to end the suffering of blacks and poor people, and that a more radical and comprehensive approach to the problems confronting African Americans had to be employed.  “The black revolution,” he insisted, “is much more than a struggle for rights for Negroes. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society.”

Further, he viewed war, in particular the Viet Nam War, as a proxy for a more fundamental and deeper sickness in American society.  The war in Vietnam,” he said, “is a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. Material growth has been made an end itself. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power.”

What was needed King articulated was a revolution grounded in new set of values.   “A true revolution of values”, he pointed out, “will lay hands on the world order and say of war- ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ Thus, as King entered the final years of his life, he believed that only a revolution could save America and humanity from the three structural evils of America.  In a radical tone and voice, King announce:  “Our only hope lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometime hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Given the state of race and inequality in America today, it is Americans not just the European Union who can still learn from the insights and teaching of Martin Luther King.  Indeed, what a wonderful and different world it would be.  The triple evils- racism, materialism, and militarism- are still present today.

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