The Other Martin Luther King

Since 1986, the United States has celebrated the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Day. King, who was assassinate in 1968, was born January 15, 1929. A federal law establishing the holiday was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. King is honored because of his national leadership in the non-violent civil rights movements that helped to overturn legal racial segregation in the United States. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a law proclaiming the King commemoration as a national day of service.

In December 2013 I wrote a Huffington Post on the hijacking of the legacy of Nelson Mandela as his radicalism and willingness to engage in armed struggle when necessary were being written out of history and he was being celebrated simply as a man of peace and forgiveness - an updated version of Mohandas Gandhi. In the United States the legacy of Martin Luther King has undergone a similar whitewashing.

In this post I focus on two of his more radical speeches King delivered in 1967. One focuses on foreign policy and the other on economic justice. As the United States debates its global role in the post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan era and as new calls are made to narrow the wealth gap in the country it is important to revisit the ideas of the real Martin Luther King. As we move closer to the holiday, I hope teachers can have their classes examine these words in their classrooms

In April 1967, Martin Luther King discussed the Vietnam War in a speech at Riverside Church in New York City. In this speech he questioned the legitimacy of U.S. military action, called for a "shift from a 'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented' society," and insisted that the "demands of inner truth" superseded unquestioning loyalty to government.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Discusses Vietnam

King challenged U.S. actions in Vietnam as imperialist in nature and wrong. According to King, "It should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over."

King believed the war in Vietnam was "but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit." He concluded the speech, "Our only hope" as a nation "lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when 'every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.'"

1. What does King mean when he says "America's soul" was "poisoned" by the Vietnam War?
2. Do you think Dr. King would support U.S. foreign and military policies today? What evidence from his speech supports your conclusion?
3. Should discussion of these ideas be included in the commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King?

In August 1967, King gave a speech on the topic "Where Do We Go From Here" at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. In the speech King questioned whether a capitalist economic system could ever resolve the problem of intense and widespread poverty.

Dr. Martin Luther King Asks Americans "Where Do We Go From Here?" (1967)

"[T]he movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, 'Why are there forty million poor people in America?' And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring . . . [W]hen 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?'"

1. What aspects of American society is Dr. King questioning in this speech?
2. What do these quotations suggest about the ideas of Martin Luther King? What evidence from his speech supports your conclusion?
3. Should discussion of these ideas be included in the commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King?

At the conclusion of the Atlanta speech King called on Americans to be "dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.

King added two more important thoughts that I hope to be true. "Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice" and he quoted William Cullen Bryant, "Truth crushed to earth will rise again."

As with Dr. King, I remain dissatisfied with social inequality; I believe the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice; and last, I write these posts because I know that the truth about society will never stay crushed.