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happy mlk jr. day

January 17, 2011

Since I’m feeling lazy, here’s something I wrote about MLK Jr. last year.

Today celebrates the life of one of America’s most influential figures, Martin Luther King Jr. King is most known for his “I Have A Dream” speech, and for being a prominent civil rights leader, but he was much more than that. He was also a radical activist, pacifist and revolutionary.

The day he was assassinated, King was in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting a strike of African-American sanitation workers who were fighting against unequal wages and poor working conditions, as well as for union recognition. King wasn’t just a champion for civil rights, he was also a champion for economic justice, freedom and peace, using his style of nonviolent direct action to fight against racism and the Vietnam War as much as for major economic reforms.

For me, King’s revolutionary spirit is characterized by these words, which were given in a speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. 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, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

I’d always known that King was a revolutionary figure in American history, but hearing these words today for the first time, I finally realize just how revolutionary he was. In a world where people often assume that violence is the only effective means of change, King showed us just how powerful nonviolence can be in combating racial inequality and social injustice.

Before his untimely death, King was helping to organize the Poor People’s Campaign, a national campaign designed to address the issues of economic justice and housing for the poor in the U.S. He was in the middle of crisscrossing the country, trying to mobilize what he called a “multiracial army of the poor” to march on Washington to demand an Economic Bill of Rights, when he took that fateful detour to help support the Memphis sanitation workers.

King was a brave man. He received numerous death threats, but he was willing to give his life for what he believed in—perhaps in part because he knew that his death wouldn’t be in vain. As King said in a speech he gave the night before he was assassinated:

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

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