On the 40th Anniverary of Martin Luther King’s Death

MLKOn the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, there are lots of remembrances of him from people who were in Memphis at the time (thanks to gtwain for that link) and others for whom his death forever shaped the rest of their lives (photo credit). I thought it appropriate today to put up some thoughts about the two issues that were most on the mind of King at the time of his death: war and poverty. It was exactly one year before he was killed (April 7, 1967) that King gave his famous “Riverside Speech” (at Riverside Church here in New York) in which he denounced the Vietnam War. In that speech he lists seven, very powerful reasons for his opposition, among the most moving today is this:

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that 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. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

I think about this as I hear people today talk about violence and immediately shift the focus to angry, young, black men as if they had invented violence.

Of course, King was in Memphis in 1968 to draw attention to a protest by sanitation workers, a protest that he saw as central to the poor people’s movement he wanted to build.    When Dr.King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he spoke of “two evils” – the first was racial injustice and the second was poverty:

A second evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world. Almost two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist. This problem of poverty is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves. Take my own country for example. We have developed the greatest system of production that history has ever known. We have become the richest nation in the world. Our national gross product this year will reach the astounding figure of almost 650 billion dollars. Yet, at least one-fifth of our fellow citizens – some ten million families, comprising about forty million individuals – are bound to a miserable culture of poverty. In a sense the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment. In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity. …So it is obvious that if man is to redeem his spiritual and moral “lag”, he must go all out to bridge the social and economic gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots” of the world. Poverty is one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life.

His words ring as true today as they did more than forty years ago.  My hope on this anniversary is that we can find the political will to carry forward the substance of Martin’s vision rather than simply reassure ourselves with ceremonial and self-congratulatory rhetoric that his dream has been realized.