The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is my first blog post in more than six months and it’s not about science, but it’s something that needs to be said (besides, who actually reads this blog anyway?).

Today, January 15, 2017, would have been the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 88th birthday. I attend a Unitarian Universalist church here in Maine and today’s service was devoted to Dr. King’s words and legacy. As any good service will do, it got me thinking.

During today’s service, my friend Bruce wondered what the world might have been like had Dr. King lived. It is worth mentioning that Bruce grew up in Memphis. He was ten years old when Dr. King was shot. He remembers waiting in the car for his mother outside a store when she suddenly ran out to tell him the news.

I wasn’t alive in the ’60s, but it seems to me that our country had reached a pivotal moment by the end of the decade and was faced with a choice. The ’40s and ’50s had been decades in which the white middle class had grown substantially. America was at its economic apex and the two major political parties were both still relatively moderate, continuing a trend that began in the ’30s (not by coincidence, this era saw some of the greatest progress in American history). The nation was in the midst of a great social experiment and while African Americans had not immediately benefited from the economic expansion, thanks to people like Dr. King they had finally won many hard fought freedoms. There was still much to be done but it seemed like a great deal of social and economic progress had been made. The year 1964 was particularly pivotal in that it saw the signing of the Civil Rights Act and LBJ’s declaration of a “war on poverty.”

The trouble was, as Dr. King astutely noted, such a war could never be won if the nation persisted in spending more money on military projects than on poverty itself.┬áIt’s hard to say when things began to unravel. I’m not a historian and I wasn’t born until February of 1974, one month prior to the lifting of the oil embargo that some historians consider the point at which the economic gains of the previous three decades began their long, steady decline.

To be sure, a good deal of progress has still been made since then—gay marriage is, for now, the law of the land and, despite his faults (which were many) and the vitriol he faced (which was considerable) we had a black president for eight years. Yet it seems to me that these things were accomplished in spite of nearly overwhelming contrary efforts and opposition. As one woman at my church pointed out this morning, Dr. King would likely be fighting the same exact battles he fought in the ’50s and ’60s were he alive today. What happened?

The way I see it, we fell victim to simple greed. The greed was then further mined for fear by a society that increasingly promoted a Randian sense of individual superiority over mutual interest. “Us” became “me.” Neo-liberalism or anarcho-capitalism or neo-corporatism or whatever one wishes to call it, reduced a person’s worth to what they could produce. Certain elements took advantage of rising materialism to begin to erode the four-decade-old social compact that had so painstakingly been built (and was still being built). Government, which is merely a tool, no different from any other tool, was (and is still) relentlessly derided as philosophically evil. The entire concept was bad because it might (could!) be used to suppress our individual materialist tendencies. In a political system built on compromise, it’s difficult to make progress when one side considers the entire process to be illegitimate.

Such a situation begs to be exploited. Those who were unhappy with the social progress of the ’50s and ’60s figured out that people will care less about minorities if their new-found religion of materialism and unchecked individuality felt threatened. It was a convenient way to deny minorities truly equal rights without actually bringing back segregation (yet). They were playing the long game anyway, counting on the fact that they could eventually find a way to dismantle even the very protections then (and, for now, still) enshrined in law. The de-legitimization of government in general and the anarcho-capitalist mantra turned out to be the perfect cover.

And so it is that Dr. King, were he alive today, would see the slow return of segregation in bathrooms and court houses and bakeries around the country. Some of it, of course, is legally imposed since, to the cynically exploitative enemies of progress, government is only evil when it works against their own interests. Dr. King would see active voter suppression and a minority rule that showed, in some places (notably North Carolina), a disturbing similarity to the very earliest days of South Africa. It is worth remembering that the Cape Colony, one of the founding states of the Union of South Africa, included multi-racial suffrage and equal rights in its earliest days. Dr. King would see that, despite a general decline in what is officially designated “poverty,” there is an increasing wealth gap that calls into question the very meaning of the word “poverty.” Dr. King would see the very same maladies affecting our nation now as did in 1968.

Dr. King believed a radical revolution was necessary back then. He believed we were increasingly on the wrong side of history. He believed that we had taken on

the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.

He felt that

we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a “thing” orientated society to a “person” orientated society. When machines and computers and profit motive and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.

He was unequivocal. He believed that

[o]ne day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be changed so that men and women must not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than slinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation.

These quotes are all culled from a sermon he gave on April 30, 1967 in which he railed against the very anarcho-capitalism and neo-corporatism (which are spiritually kin) that threatens the progress people like Dr. King gave up their lives for. He railed against a

nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift

predicting that it would soon lead to “spiritual death.”

At the same time he was hopeful that the United States, and indeed all the nations of the West, would not forget their revolutionary roots. But the revolution required changing our loyalties to mankind as a whole, developing a

worldwide fellowship that lifts the neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation.

I hasten to add that it must rise above our own individual self-interests as well. Indeed it is this rampant cult of the “self” that has done more to undermine Dr. King’s legacy than anything else.

As hopeful as he was, he was cognizant of the fact that the vision of an end to poverty put forth by LBJ in 1964 was already showing signs of wear in 1967. Speaking out against the war in Vietnam, he said that there was an obvious

and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago, there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seems as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, a new beginning. Then came the build-up in Vietnam and I watched the program broken up as if it was some idle political plaything … and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as ventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.

He even went so far as to acknowledge the criticisms leveled at his non-violent approach, the most devastating of which was the fact that the nation as a whole had undertaken a violent solution to the problem in Vietnam. One can almost sense a crack of self-doubt in this passage of the sermon. The critique, in his own words, had

hit home and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in ghettoes without having just spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.

In a statement that holds as true today as it did then, he descried those who equated dissent with disloyalty, calling it a

dark day in our nation when high level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent.

Dr. King was clear that his condemnation of the war in Vietnam and the actions of America did not mean that he, in any way, endorsed the atrocities carried out by others. He was not offering his support for Castro or North Korea and he even went so far as to say that, despite being a pacifist, he would have likely fought against Hitler, whom he called

such an evil force in history.

What he descried was the encroaching neo-liberal worldview that, today, takes many forms but whose constant, underlying themes include profit at all costs, the reduction of others’ self-worth to their economic output, and a promotion of the self as the highest of ideals. It is this latter point that has perhaps been the most insidious for it is through a cultivation of the self that we have lost any sense of empathy for others for we have, to paraphrase Dr. King, sacrificed truth at the altar of self-interest. And one of the many truths we have sacrificed is that we need one another. Self-interest and the myth of complete self-reliance produce complacency toward the suffering of others. Dr. King was not kind to such people, noting that he agreed with Dante

that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those, who in a period of moral crisis, maintained their neutrality. There comes a time when silence is betrayal.

It is worth keeping all this in mind as we prepare to usher in the new administration in Washington, one that, though not even in office yet, appears poised to roll back much of the progress of the past seventy years and to accelerate the growing gap between those at the top and the rest of us. As Dr. King used to say, Pharaoh stayed in power by pitting his slaves against one another.

Dr. King called for unconditional love of all mankind and said

[w]hen I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental or weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.

He closed this sermon by saying

I have not lost faith, I am not in despair because I know there is a moral order. I have not lost faith because the arch [sic] of the moral universe bends towards justice.



Blog at

Up ↑