“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”― Martin Luther King Jr. As one who came of age during the civil rights era, I was profoundly impacted by the life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., who was far more radical than the watered-down pap about him being taught today.
He taught me so much more than just what it means to look beyond the color of a person’s skin—he taught me that life means nothing if you don’t stand up for the things that truly matter. King was a clear moral voice that cut through the fog of distortion. He spoke like a prophet and commanded that you listen. King dared to speak truth to the establishment and called for an end to oppression and racism. A peace warrior in a world of war, King raised his voice against the Vietnam War and challenged the military-industrial complex.
Fifty years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his groundbreaking “I Have a Dream” speech, we have certainly made some progress in terms of race relations and equality, yet we are falling dismally short when it comes to achieving King’s dreams of a world without war and hunger. Indeed, at the same time that churches, schools and historical monuments across the country are ringing their bells in King’s memory, the White House is gearing up for yet another war, this time with Syria. We need to stop paying lip service to King’s dream and start recognizing that we are killing his dream with every missile we launch, every bottom line we fatten, and every human need we overlook. The following key principles formed the backbone of Rev. King’s life and work. King spoke of them incessantly, in every sermon he preached, every speech he delivered and every article he wrote. Freedom, human dignity, brotherhood, spirituality, peace, justice, equality, putting an end to war and poverty—these are just a few of the big themes that shaped King’s life and, in turn, impacted so many impressionable young people like myself.
Practice non-violence, resist militarism and put an end to war.
“I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”—Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon at New York’s Riverside Church (April 4, 1967)
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his murder, King used the power of his pulpit to condemn the U.S. for “using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted.” Insisting that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America can ignore its part in the Vietnam War, King called on the U.S. to end all bombing in Vietnam, declare a unilateral cease-fire, curtail its military buildup, and set a date for troop withdrawals. In that same sermon, King warned 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.” Fifty years later, America’s military empire has been expanded at great cost to the nation, with the president leading the charge by calling for missile strikes against Syria and authorizing drone strikes on innocent civilians, including American citizens. The national security budget for 2013, which allots a whopping $851 billion to be spent on wars abroad, weapons and military personnel, significantly outspends the money being spent on education, poverty and disease.
Stand against injustice
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”― Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963)
Arrested and jailed for taking part in a nonviolent protest against racial segregation in Birmingham, Ala., King used his time behind bars to respond to Alabama clergymen who criticized King’s methods of civil disobedience and suggested that the courts were the only legitimate means for enacting change. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which makes the case for disobeying unjust laws, points out that “a just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.
To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Fifty years later, we are being bombarded with unjust laws at both the national and state levels, from laws authorizing the military to indefinitely detain American citizens and allowing the NSA to spy on American citizens to laws making it illegal to protest near an elected official or in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. As King warned, “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”
Work to end poverty.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”—Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon at New York’s Riverside Church (April 4, 1967)
Especially in the latter part of his life, King was unflinching in his determination to hold Americans accountable to alleviating the suffering of the poor, going so far as to call for a march on Washington, DC, to pressure Congress to pass an Economic Bill of Rights.
In recounting a parable about a man who went to hell because he didn’t see the poor, King cautioned his congregants: “Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich… Dives went to hell because he was passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Indeed, Dives went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.”
Prioritize people over corporations.
“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.” —Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon at New York’s Riverside Church (April 4, 1967)
With roughly 25 lobbyists per Congressman, corporate greed largely calls the shots in the nation’s capital, enabling our elected representatives to grow richer and the people poorer. One can only imagine what King would have said about a nation whose political processes, everything from elections to legislation, are driven by war chests and corporate benefactors rather than the needs and desires of the citizenry.
Stand up for what is right, rather than what is politically expedient.
“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”—Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon at National Cathedral (March 31, 1968)
Five days before his murder, King delivered a sermon at National Cathedral in Washington, DC, in which he noted that “one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.” As King recognized, there is much to be done if we are to make this world a better place, and we cannot afford to play politics when so much hangs in the balance.
It’s time to wake up. Fifty years after King gave voice to his dream, America is still plagued with wars, government surveillance and a military-industrial complex that feeds a national diet of warmongering. And King, once a charismatic leader and voice of authority, has been memorialized in death to such an extent that younger generations recognize his face but miss out on his message.
Yet for those who can hear, he still speaks volumes. To quote my hero: “[O]ur very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.”