Martin Luther King Day is a rare moment in American life when people reflect – even if only briefly – on the ideals that guided Dr. King’s life and led to his death. Thus, the struggle over King’s message can be intense, pitting a bland conventional view against a more radical call for profound change, as Brian J. Trautman writes.
By Brian J. Trautman
Most Americans know Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of the Twentieth Century’s most revered voices for racial equality, the charismatic leader of the American Civil Rights movement, who gave the famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps they even know a thing or two about his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Birmingham Campaign.
This knowledge, by and large, derives from compulsory education and mainstream media. It is significantly less likely, however, that very many Americans know much at all, if anything, about King’s radical and controversial activities related to the issues of poverty and militarism, particularly the latter.
King highlighted three primary forms of violence, oppression and injustice in American society and across the world: poverty, racism and militarism. He referred to these as the “triple evils,” and considered them to be interrelated problems, existing in a vicious and intractable cycle, and standing as formidable barriers to achieving the Beloved Community, a brotherly society built upon and nurtured by love, nonviolence, peace and justice. King posited that when we resisted any one evil, we in turn weakened all evils, but that a measurable and lasting impact would require us to address all three.
King’s work to educate about and eradicate poverty was among his greatest passions. In “The Octopus of Poverty,” a statement appearing in The Mennonite in 1965, King observed, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.” Accordingly, “the time has come for an all-out world war against poverty.”
He strongly believed “the rich nations,” namely the United States, had a moral responsibility to care for its most vulnerable populations, noting that such “nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed.” King held, “ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation,” and maintained that “no individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.”
In late 1967, King announced the Poor People’s Campaign, an innovative effort designed to educate Americans on poverty issues and recruit both poor people and antipoverty activists for nonviolent social change. The priority of the project was to march on, and to occupy, if you will, Washington and to demand the Congress pass meaningful legislation to improve the social and economic status of the poor, through directed measures such as jobs, unemployment insurance, health care, decent homes, a fair minimum wage, and education.
Alas, Dr. King was assassinated only weeks before the actual march took place. And while the march went ahead as planned in May of 1968, it is thought that the lack of substantive change to result was due in large part to King’s absence. Still, a positive outcome of the initiative was a heightened public awareness of the nation’s growing poor population.
Perhaps most controversial were King’s positions on militarism and U.S. foreign policy. In “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” published in 1967, King said of war and its consequences: “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war- ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This way 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, psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.” He cautioned that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
King’s most pointed speech against militarism was “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated. While King’s popularity among political allies and his inner circle was already beginning to wane because of his increasing public criticism of U.S. foreign policy and the growing war in Vietnam, the Beyond Vietnam speech was to become his most public dissent of the war to date, a war still largely unopposed by the majority.
To speak out in opposition to the war, he acknowledged, was personally necessitated, asserting, “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” With such a call to conscience, “a time comes when silence is betrayal.” And in the present day, argued King, “that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
In the speech King calls the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and questions why money is being spent to wage war on foreign lands against foreign people while the war on poverty at home was being neglected, financially and otherwise. The major media of the time denounced the speech and King lost a great deal of support among his colleagues and the American people for it.
We owe it ourselves and our children and grandchildren, as well as our communities and nation to learn and teach about and take up King’s efforts focused not only on ending racism but all three of the evils against which he untiringly stood. Only then will we find ourselves closer to achieving King’s dream of the Beloved Community.
A small but important step toward this goal is to volunteer, as my family and I do, with a charitable and progressive cause on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, a national day of service.
Brian J. Trautman writes for PeaceVoice, is a military veteran, an instructor of peace studies at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and a peace activist. On Twitter @TrautBri.