Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, the Revolutionary

After more than a decade of serious contemplation, King unwaveringly concluded that no war is worth sacrificing children to. He said, "More and more I have come to the conclusion that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons of war totally rules out the possibilities of war ever serving again as a negative good."

These were not the words of a foolish idealist, but instead, those of an educated man, aided with as much if not more philosophical and historical wisdom, not to mention real-world experience than any one in U.S. Senate today or the White House. And while we often hear his name, most Americans, of all races, fail to adequately honor his legacy. To truly honor King, we must renounce war and prejudice, not simply read, watch, quote or reflect on his famous, "I Have A Dream" speech. That’s just the starting point.

The problem with the way great people like King are honored is that their images are polished and cleaned for the masses. These Rockwellian images of picturesque people are then sold to the public as something they had always loved. In truth, King sacrificed himself for the sins of a bigoted nation; rather than coddling the American people, he challenged the white, indolent masses to be better human beings, to reach beyond their own self-interest. He also challenged African American civil rights advocates to look beyond their personal struggle, and stand up against the Vietnam War.

Nothing exemplifies the distortion of King’s legacy more fully than when President Bush made a mockery out of the 2003 MLK Jr. Day. Before the invasion of Iraq, Bush honored King’s day while simultaneously preparing to wage a preemptive war. He even evoked King’s words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” implying that King would have supported the decision to go to war. Bush went on to say, “As Americans celebrate the 18th national commemoration of the life and legacy of this great leader we recognize the lasting truth of his words and his legacy….” Nothing could be further from the truth. Ironically, the president, like many before and after him, used the words of a peace maker as a slogan for impulsive, hegemonic military action.

To reclaim King, we should begin by touting his emphatic opposition to the military-industrial-complex, which ordinary Americans support each tax year. With the U.S. spending more than the top four military spenders combined (Russia, China, Japan, U.K.), Americans would do well to recall these words from King:

This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, or injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

As we continue to spend $400 billion dollars on military spending and a less than $100 billion on Children’s Health, K-12 Education, and humanitarian foreign aid combined, that spiritual death looms terrifyingly near. Perhaps the best defense against terrorism would be to punish the war mongers who mare our democracy and threaten democratically elected leaders around the world whom they deem unacceptable such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Whatever the solution to global terrorism, as King put it, one thing is for sure, you can’t make peace out of a lust and zeal for war:

The large power blocs talk passionately of pursuing peace while expanding defense budgets that already bulge, enlarging already awesome armies and devising ever more devastating weapons…. Before it is too late, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war.

In addition to protecting King’s message of peace from the war hungry, we must defend his vehement vision of equality for all from today’s homophobes, pretending to be Christians. Joining Bush in bastardizing King’s legacy, in 2002 the Associated Press (AP) reported that a coalition of several organizations used the legacy of Martin Luther King to encourage voters to repeal Miami-Dade County‘s gay rights ordinance. According to AP, the group made a reproachful pamphlet complete with the sponsoring effigy of King and the words: "Martin Luther King Jr. would be OUTRAGED! If he knew homosexual extremists were abusing the civil rights movement to get special rights based on their sexual behavior" ("Group’s Usage of MLK’s Image A Point of Debate," Associated Press, January 19, 2003).

Yet those who knew him well, reject such claims. On August 1st 2002 Coretta Scott King said, "I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people." Similarly she also said at the 25th anniversary luncheon for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, March 31, 1998, "I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice. … But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’" (Notice how Coretta opts for a less militaristic interpretation of her husband’s words compared to the president’s take.)

Most recently, Max Blumenthal reported that, during Justice Sunday II, Conservative Christian speakers evoked the memory of King and equated his civil rights struggle with the religious right’s own movement. According to Blumenthal, “born-again Watergate felon Chuck Colson 1-6-06). declared that the Christian right was doing nothing but ‘giving voice’ to Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy” (“Who Are Justice Sunday’s Ministers of Minstrelsy?”

The religious right’s business of hate and intolerance is about as far removed from King’s message of love and tolerance as hell is from heaven. King reproached the religious zealots of the world who saw religion as a weapon of hate, used to divide human beings rather than unite them.

But I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems….I’ve seen too much hate….I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. The beautiful thing is that we aren’t moving wrong when we do it because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God. He who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimately reality.

Beyond the issue of peace and brotherhood, perhaps the most neglected of King’s views is his support for altering the U.S. economic system. At a time when a fourth of the world’s financial assets belong to 8.3 millionaires and the U.S. Senate refuses to increase the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage, King’s critique of capitalism has never been more relevant. He explained:

We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity. The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspire men to be more I-centered than thou-centered.

Considering the increasing concentration of wealth among the few, it’s no wonder King believed that American society needed to be restructured, and called for a broader distribution of wealth. According to a study by the Annie E. Casey, Ford and Rockefeller foundations, “one in every five U.S. jobs pays less than a poverty-level wage for a family of four” (Associated Press, October 11, 2004, “39M Americans in Working Poor Families.”) As a result, the study concludes “that nearly 39 million Americans, including 20 million children, are members of ‘low-income working families’ – with barely enough money to cover basic needs like housing, groceries and child care, the study found.” In his own day, King concluded that “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” and seriously questioned claims of private ownership of natural resources.

See my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question, who owns the iron-ore? You begin to ask the question why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?…Now don’t think you have me in a bind today, I’m not talking about Communism….My inspiration didn’t come from Karl Marx. My inspiration didn’t come from Engels; my inspiration didn’t come from Trotsky; my inspiration didn’t come from Lenin….Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. The kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of Capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It’s found in a higher synthesis that can combine the truths of both.

King went on to add that “the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.” (The original axis of evil, if you will.)

Additionally, one should also not overlook King’s approval of the separation of church and state. In an interview conducted by Playboy Magazine, amid his civil rights struggles and the Supreme Court’s then recent decision ruling mandated school prayer unlawful, King clearly stated his support for the court’s decision:

I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.

Above all else, King called on us to have a courageous conscience, unafraid of dissent or its consequence. When he was asked about his anti-war stand during the Vietnam War he answered simply: "Vanity asks the question ‘Is it popular?’ Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’" It is time we make a serious commitment to taking over where Dr. King left off, by standing for free speech, economic equality, and human rights, despite the corporate media’s influence on the American masses.

This year, instead of tuning in to some watered-down special on King’s life, pay homage to the message that defined the man by picking up the book “A Testament of Hope, the essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.” or the CD collection, “The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..” And rather than passively appreciating his sacrifice, apply his vision, his dream to our world today: pick up the banner of peace, fight for LGBT rights, and politically punish politicians who cut funding for education, welfare and healthcare.

Just as King once wrote, "It is time that we stopped our blithe lip service to the guarantees of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness," it is also time we also "stopped our blithe lip service" to King’s visionary pronouncements. Americans must wake to realize justice will not “unfold painlessly” and that it’s our duty to make King’s own vision of equality and justice a reality.

Jeff Nall is a community activist and freelance writer. He regularly contributes to publications such as Toward Freedom, the Humanist, and Impact Press. He lives with his wife and daughter in Brevard County Florida.

Check out these tributes to King and his message of peace:

Code Pink video:


True Majority tribute: