The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

"Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power."

— M. L. King Jr.

Born January 15 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in the south during a time of tremendous segregation and racism. The son of parents who were devout Christians and the recipient of generations of Black religious traditions, King developed into a man with a burning desire to overcome injustice and an admirable capacity to endure bigotry and violence without retaliating physically but by seeking to defeat evil with superior moral power and by wearing down his enemies with principles of universal love and human dignity.

Although he revered and emulated the nonviolent resistance methods of Mohandas Ghandi, King was not a pacifist but believed that nonviolence in the face of the enormous reality and capacity of violence from Whites was more practical than retaliatory violence in which Black people would ultimately be harmed most.

King believed that history had always showed that violence, far from being the solution, only sparked more intense hatreds and more widespread bloodshed. He often commented that the philosophy of an eye for an eye, would leave everyone blinded.

In 1963, civil rights leaders led a multitude of thousands on a dramatic sojourn to Washington DC to bring attention to the blighted economic and social plight of Blacks in America. On a hot August afternoon, King approached the podium, looked out at the sea of humanity and said:

"In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men-yes, Black men as well as White men-would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation,

America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt." [1]

Yet the magnitude of injustice and entrenched institutional racism would prove surprising even to Dr King. And he said in exasperatio after unsuccessfully attempting to desegregate the suburbs of Chicago while encountering venomous racism, that the northern Whites of Chicago could go to the southern Whites of Alabama and Mississippi and give lessons on how to hate.

Moreover, King began to connect the violence and economic exploitation in America with that in Third World countries and by the mid 1960’s he was publicly speaking out against the war in Vietnam. He did this against the advice of many of his closest colleagues and friends who were concerned about losing support from powerful people in government. King explained to them that, as a man who could never accept segregation in American society, he should not be expected to allow his conscience and moral principles to be segregated.

On April 4 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, King delivered a speech in New York City that emphasized his shift from the narrow and limited stage of civil rights to the wide and all-encompassing territory of human rights. A shift which many believed marked him for death:

"Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seen major reasons for bringing Vietnam into my field of moral vision.

There is at the outset a very 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 seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both Black and White, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political play-thing of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and attack it as such." [2]

By mid 1967, King organized a Poor People’s Campaign and plans were made for the mobilization of over 500,000 of the nation’s poorest and most neglected citizens to encamp in "tent cities" near the Washington Memorial. These plans frightened wealthy and powerful elements in America who were unwilling to meet the legitimate needs of the nation’s poor and realized the real possibility that a government facing such a dissatisfied mass could be shut down, overrun and, perhaps, overthrown.

Before he could launch his campaign on Washington he was invited to Memphis Tennessee to intercede on behalf of striking sanitation workers. King had again raised the bar from fighting segregation and anti-civil rights laws into the battlegrounds of labor and international politics. On the evening of April 4 1968, while talking to colleagues on the balcony of a Memphis motel, Martin Luther King Jr was killed by an assassin’s bullet in what many believe was the culmination of a far reaching conspiracy.

King died as he lived, involved in the struggle against greed, ignorance and oppression. As we commemorate him and celebrate his birthday, we must not regulate him to a picture on the wall or minimize his legacy to a cheap opportunity for a paid holiday. For the forces of unjust wars, economic exploitation and social injustice that King gave his life fighting against have not disappeared nor have they retreated. In 2002, fifty of the world’s largest economies were corporations and they exceeded the GNP’s of the world’s one hundred smallest countries.[3] And with the advent of mergers of corporations, increased advancements in technology and the opening of new markets, people are increasingly looked upon as inessential and disposable.

According to the 21st edition of the Urban League Report on the State of Black America, one out of three Blacks live in poverty, a rate three times that of Whites. And although Black Americans make up approximately 15 percent of America’s total population, they constitute 40 percent of those living in poverty. Thus racism continues to rear its ugly head in the regulation of Black people to near starvation status and the enactment of genocidal programs. Dr King was aware of this gathering danger and exerted every fiber of himself to ensure that the value of human beings were more important than corporate profits and more profound than the perceptions of the narrow minded and the nefarious. For his brave and uncompromising stance he was shot in the neck and murdered. Let us make sure that his death, as well as his life, were not in vain.

Notes and References:

[1]. Excerpted from Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered in Washington DC on August 28, 1963

[2]. Excerpted from Martin Luther King’s "Beyond Vietnam" speech, delivered in New York City on April 4, 1967

[3]. William Pepper, "An Act of State" (Verso 2003)