A Reflection on MLK Day 2012

January 16, 2012

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” —  Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967.

The TV commercials roll on proclaiming 50 % off specials to “honor” this day in which the US remembers the life, dream, and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. As ridiculous as that is, it was always inevitable. Every holiday in America eventually (usually sooner rather than later) becomes a marketing tool and the real reason behind the day itself is gradually obscured. But it’s not just the day that is being misrepresented and forgotten; it’s the man himself and the things he stood for, strove for, and died for that are being lost through selective remembrance and rose-colored history lessons. Yesterday in a copy of one of my local newspapers there was a cartoon at the top of the opinion page with a silly caricature of President Obama which lampooned his desire to decrease military spending. Directly below that cartoon was an “Our View” Op-Ed piece memorializing MLK Jr. which praised his dream of “getting out and making the world a better place”–the staff of the paper urged all readers to go and do likewise.

Yes Dr. King worked to make the world a better place. But how did he go about doing so? What were the struggles he faced and who were the enemies he identified in that struggle? Most people today dishonor King’s memory and struggle by boxing him in, by making him one-dimensional and thus more “palatable.” Racial Justice was certainly the first and foremost goal in King’s struggle for equality; the Civil Rights Movement in America found in King a mascot and eventually a martyr for the cause. Those that praise King today in a generic manner usually only mention the Civil Rights Struggle and even then they usually fail to point out how much of King’s dream of racial equality is still unfulfilled; just listen to the dialogue that many use to criticize this holiday or even to condemn the current President; or count how many subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) comments you are apt to overhear in a day disparaging African Americans, Hispanics, or immigrants of any kind–granted the frequency of such comments likely depends on where you live and who you regularly come into contact with but it’s doubtful that anywhere in America, from small country towns to big urban cities, can you be out and about for an entire day without overhearing at least one racially charged comment–and this is 2012.

But it wasn’t just racial justice that King stood for; his struggle for equality led him to the realization that non-violence (and active, non-violent protest) was the best tool for combating racism. His embrace of Gandhian non-violence (and a trip to India) led him to embrace the struggle for world peace in its entirety. His examination of structural racism and inequality led him to realize that poverty, specifically institutional poverty, was the underlying shared source of suffering for people across every color line. Ultimately, King discovered that Racial Justice, Economic Justice, and Global Nonviolence & World Peace were three inextricably linked concepts. You cannot truly have one of these things fulfilled without having the other two fulfilled; racial justice will never be complete and equality will remain unreached as long as there is systemic poverty, classism, and a chasm between rich and poor. World peace cannot be tangible and possible without the problem of poverty being solved or without the full realization of racial equality.

Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, that is something people remember; most fail to mention (and have usually forgotten) that he was there to protest the mistreatment of Memphis city garbage collectors, to speak out in favor of a union for garbage collectors and city employees, to demand better treatment and pay for those workers, black and white. Most people forget that King was becoming a very polarizing figure near the end of his life (even amongst many fellow civil-rights advocates) with his out-spoken condemnation of the Vietnam War. Dr. King realized one cannot insist on non-violent tactics at home in the struggle for equality while supporting violent tactics abroad. Near the end of his life, Dr. King was organizing another march on Washington. Yet this time he was asking poor people of all colors and creeds to march not only to D.C. for the day but to bring tents and sleeping bags–he planned to “occupy” Washington in a massive sign of civil protest demanding something be done about poverty in America. Dr. King realized that the current form of hyper-capitalism beloved by America (which is still popular today) was out of control, that it worked itself out as Social Darwinism creating an uncrossable chasm between rich and poor, one which feeds huge profits to a small percentage at the top of the system by hurting and negating a bulk of people at the bottom of the system. King began to embrace a form of Democratic Socialism as the only form of government that could deliver on the promises America made in its Constitution and Bill of Rights. Only by embracing a form of Democratic Socialism in which the necessities of life–including basic food, clothing, housing, and healthcare–are removed from the competitive arena of for-profit capitalism and instead provided to the neediest citizens of this country through taxpayer funding can the goals of racial and economic justice and peace be truly apprehended. As King was fond of saying, “it is a cruel jest to insist to a bootless man that he must pull himself up by his own bootstraps.”

All of these issues King strove for are still a factor today. Now, in a presidential campaign year, it is the perfect time to have a serious discussion on wealth and privilege in America. Will this happen? Likely not. The masses are speaking out vehemently and they are denouncing the things King stood for. The masses want smaller government by any means necessary, they mock the consideration of decreased military spending, they see no connection between violence, racism, and poverty. King, like any religious or social hero or icon, was a complex figure; as he is one of my ten most admired people I have read many biographies and reflections on him and I know that he was far from perfect and that many of his flaws were tragically and banally human–some of the most out-spoken on those human flaws have been African-American theologians and social critics (like Michael Eric Dyson) who have tried to bring all of those issues into the light to paint a fully human and complex figure of King the man. So it’s not neccesary that one admire and agree with everything King did, said, or thought to appreciate his committment and accomplishments in the Civil Rights Struggle. Yet anyone today who praises the memory of King and overlooks his committment to Peace and Economic Justice does his memory a great disservice because for King, those things were inescapably connected to Racial Justice. I’ m ending this piece with a few quotes from King that are just as relevant today as they were when he made them.


* “It is estimated that we spend $322,000 for each enemy we kill, while we spend in the so-called war on poverty in America only about $53.00 for each person classified as “poor”. And much of that 53 dollars goes for salaries of people who are not poor. ….

We are isolated in our false values in a world demanding social and economic justice. We must undergo a vigorous re-ordering of our national priorities.”


*“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has every thing to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” …. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. ….”

*”What I’m saying to you this morning is 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. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see 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.”


One Response to “A Reflection on MLK Day 2012”

  1. […] here goes. I’ve written about King in the past in honor of the holiday we’ve named after him. I focused then on his passionate embrace of nonviolence, rejection of militarization, and the […]

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