Martin Luther King Was More Than A Dreamer

Today 18 January 2016 is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day set aside to mark the birthday of Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King. Usually, a number of Americans spend the day giving up their time to participate as volunteers in various activities, while some educational institutions teach children about the works of King. Even though King died nearly fifty years ago, his influence is still felt today. During his time on earth, King challenged the status quo as he fought against what he called the evil triplet of racism, economic exploitation and militarism. King spent the first part of his ministry tackling the first evil of racism, but later on he addressed the two other evils of economic exploitation and militarism.

Unfortunately, Martin Luther King’s legacy has been simplified into a thirty-five word sound bite, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In short, he is remembered as a dreamer rather than a revolutionary. In today’s world, he has been stripped of his radicalism and has been embraced by the mainstream. In the words of Cornel West, Martin Luther King has been “sanitized, sterilized, deodorized and Santaclausified.” Just like how Christmas has been commercialized and stripped of its true meaning and power, King has been stripped of his true meaning and power. Infact some have attempted to use his words as a means to justify the very things that King spent his life fighting against. For instance, shortly before his election as British Prime Minister, David Cameron in promoting his proposed economic policies quoted King by saying, “You will see that far from playing it safe, the Conservative Party has a radical agenda for returning power and responsibility to people. It will mean massive change in the way we run this country, how we live our lives, and what we expect from government and each other. In the words of Martin Luther King, “when you’re right, you can’t be too radical.” However, since coming into power, Cameron’s government has embarked on what has been described as the greatest assault against the poor in Britain since the introduction of the Poor Laws in 1834. Agitators against affirmative action in the USA often quote King in justifying the abolition of affirmative action while some racists hiding behind the cloak of colorblindness use King as an excuse to maintain the status quo.

To get a complete picture of Martin Luther King, we have to look beyond the words of his “I have A Dream Speech” and examine his more “uncomfortable and uncompromising words” such as those expressed in his “Beyond Vietnam speech”. It is these uncomfortable words that earned him a rebuke from the New York Times for what they described as his “Recklessly comparing American military methods to those of the Nazis.” These uncompromising words led the Washington Post to declare that King had, “Diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.” His uncomfortable words led to 73% of Americans disagreeing with his opposition to the Vietnam War.

King’s “uncomfortable” words are still relevant in today’s world where the gap between the 1% and the 99% is ever widening; it is relevant in today’s world which has turned its back on refugees clinging to deflated dinghies on the Mediterranean Sea; it is relevant in today’s world where the military and prison industrial complexes gulp up funds which should have been available to cater for the least, the last and littlest; it is relevant in today’s world where black bodies are left beaten, bloodied and brutalized on life’s Jericho Road.

The next couple of paragraphs, contains some of King’s “uncomfortable and uncompromising words” which I have categorized under the three evil triplet categories of racism, poverty and militarism.

Martin Luther King On Racism

“America has been, and she continues to be, largely a racist society.… Maybe something is wrong with our economic system the way it’s presently going …… There comes a time when any system must be reevaluated.”

“Somewhere along the way someone has forgotten that demonstrations have been sacred when they were engaged in by white Americans.… They always become wrong and ill-timed when they are engaged in by the Negro.”

“Riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice,” and “by a national administration more concerned about winning the war in Vietnam than the war against poverty right here at home.”

“Large segments of white society are more concerned about the tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

“Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

“I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

“To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion, regardless of whatever tensions that exposure generates. Injustices to the Negro must be brought out into the open where they cannot be evaded.”

“We’ve got to find a method that will disrupt our cities if necessary, create the crisis that will force the nation to look at the situation, dramatize it, and yet at the same time not destroy life or property.… I see that as massive civil disobedience.”

Martin Luther King On Economic Injustice

“The purpose of the slum, is to confine those who have no power and perpetuate their powerlessness.… The slum is little more than a domestic colony which leaves its inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically, and segregated and humiliated at every turn.”

“When an affluent society would coax us to believe that happiness consists in the size of our automobiles, the impressiveness of our houses, and the expensiveness of our clothes, Jesus reminds us, “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going.”

“We are saying that something is wrong … with capitalism…. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”

“One day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” … When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”

“To raise protest to an appropriate level for cities, to invest it with aggressive but nonviolent qualities, it is necessary to adopt civil disobedience. To dislocate the functioning of a city, without destroying it, can be more effective than a riot because it can be longer lasting, costly to the society, but not wantonly destructive”

“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way; you keep us down this way; and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’”

“I understand that you have an economic system in America known as Capitalism. Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous. But Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism. I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism.”

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most revolutionary — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now rather widely discussed measure — the guaranteed annual income.… Our emphasis should shift from exclusive attention to putting people to work over to enabling people to consume.”

Martin Luther King On Militarism

“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’s”

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

“A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of 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.”

“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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

“A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. ”

So let us reclaim Martin Luther King for who he really was and not relegate him to a 35-word sound bite.

Happy Martin Luther King Day

18 January 2016


Writer and social critic