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happy mlk jr., day

January 20, 2014

Today celebrates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of American history’s most influential figures. (In fact, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is the only federal holiday that honours a private American citizen, and only one of three that honours a specific person.) 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 who became a tireless advocate for the most downtrodden, oppressed, and marginalized among us.

The day he was assassinated, for example, King was in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting a strike of black 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 labour rights and 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 due to his well-publicized fight for civil rights, but it wasn’t until I heard those words for the first time that I finally realized just how revolutionary he truly was, that his dream his “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” was intimately tied to his realization that “the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.” And it wasn’t just in the last few years of his life that he held such radical views as many assume. In a 1952 letter to his soon-to-be wife, Coretta Scott, a young King writes things like:

By the way (to turn to something more intellectual) I have just completed Bellamy’s Looking Backward. It was both stimulating and fascinating. There can be no doubt about it. Bellamy had the insight of a social prophet as well as the fact finding mind of the social scientist. I welcomed the book because much of its content is in line with my basic ideas. I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, viz, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human systems it [fell] victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. So I think Bellamy is right in seeing the gradual decline of capitalism.

Before his untimely death, King was helping to organize the Poor People’s Campaign along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a national campaign designed to address the issues of economic justice and housing for the poor in the US. Months before the march, King told reporters, “I think that the time has come, if we can’t get anything done otherwise, to camp right here in Washington just as they did with the Bonus March—just camp here and stay here by the thousands and thousands until the Congress of our nation and the federal government will do something to deal with the problem [of poverty]”—a tactic that was similarly adopted by a budding Occupy movement 43 years later in protest against social and economic inequality following the 2008 global financial crisis.

King 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 striking Memphis sanitation workers. In King’s absence, the march on Washington was led by Ralph Abernathy, his wife, Coretta Scott King, and Jesse Jackson, and culminated in what became known as Resurrection City, an encampment on the National Mall housing somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people.

King was undoubtedly a brave man. He received numerous death threats, but he was willing to give his life for what he believed in, never letting the hatred of others deter him from doing what he thought was just, right, and for the common good—perhaps in part because he knew that his death wouldn’t be in vain, that the momentum of change was too great to be stopped by the death of one individual. 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.

Like most of the people we tend to commemorate, whether via national holidays or annual acknowledgments, King wasn’t perfect. He had his flaws and vices, and he made mistakes just like everyone else. But unlike other giants of history who I personally don’t think deserve our admiration and praise (e.g., Christopher Columbus), he does, if only because he did more than most to actively change the world for the better, fighting against ills of society like economic exploitation, inequality, racism, militarism, and nationalism. And in a world where people often assume that violence is the only effective means of change, King showed us by example just how powerful nonviolence can potentially be in combating everything from racial inequality to social injustice in all of its forms.

As we honour his legacy today, it’s my hope that his example will inspire us to not be afraid to make a difference, to courageously dive in and get our hands dirty working alongside our brothers and sisters all over the world in trying to shape a better future. King saw with profound depth the mutually-dependent relationships that underlie this fragile thing we call life, and encouraged us to see them as well—a realization he believed necessary for peace on Earth:

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

Although the Establishment often tries to adopt and sanitize popular radical figures and the things they stood for, people like MLK Jr., Nelson Mandela, etc. should be remembered for being the radical revolutionaries they were. They challenged the status quo. They challenged their governments and social institutions that support things like racism and economic injustice. They challenged the ideas and prejudices of their generation and those before them. And through their struggles, and the struggles of countless others fighting for the same things, they’ve helped change the world.

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