Monday, January 19, 2009

Thoughts on MLK Day

The world is pausing to remember the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. this year as perhaps never before, since we are less than 24 hours away from inaugurating our first black President, Barack Obama. Most of the MLK retrospectives we encounter focus on the "safe" King. They play clips from the "I Have a Dream" speech and celebrate how legalized segregation is now ended. But very little attention is paid to the Martin Luther King who is still dangerous and threatening to our society today, 41 years after his death.

In the last few years of his life, King began to broaden his focus from issues of segregation to large issues of justice, particularly war and poverty. This shift in focus did not exactly sit well with many of his supporters, but King understood that justice is justice, and he didn't back down from his call for justice no matter what form it took, no matter how unpopular it might be.

In 1967, King gave a speech at Riverside Church in New York City called "Beyond Vietnam: Time to Break the Silence", where he called for an end to the Vietnam War, among other things. The speech was controversial then, and there are certain parts of it that challenge us today as we are involved in two wars abroad and witness an ever widening gap of economic inequality at home. You can read the full text of the speech here. The audio file is embedded in the page. I've posted an excerpt below:

It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. 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...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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

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 everything 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." This business 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 and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

This speech was about Vietnam, but it could easily be about Iraq, the global economic shift, and the post 9/11 world. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. is still a prophet, challenging us to rise up and make a better world than that which has been handed to us. He is still a threat today. We can be sure that he would still be assassinated today.


Here is a very powerful video that includes audio form the aforementioned speech. Thanks to gavoweb for bringing it to my attention.

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