Jan. 15 marks the 83rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth in 1929, and the Ecumenical Council of Saranac Lake, along with other community members and organizations, has planned a number of events in his honor. MLK was one of the most important proponents of social, political and economic justice in our nation's history, and his voice has been sorely missed since he was gunned down in 1968.
A Baptist minister from Atlanta, MLK came to national prominence with the Montgomery (Ala.) bus boycott of 1955. Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger and was subsequently arrested for violating that city's segregation laws. MLK was a staunch advocate of the boycott as well as one of the movement's leading spokespeople. Begun on Dec. 1, 1955, the boycott ended on Dec. 20, 1956, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery's segregated public transportation law was unconstitutional.
In 1959, MLK visited India and the birthplace of Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), a pivotal figure in his country's protracted and eventually successful independence movement. MLK was much taken by the Mahatma's (Gandhi's honorific title, meaning "the great soul") philosophy and strategy of nonviolent resistance to bring about change.
Speaking on his final night in India, MLK stated, "I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. ... Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation."
This lofty pronouncement did not detract King from understanding the dangers inherent in nonviolent resistance. This strategy often triggered violence on the part of opponents, including police violence. Speaking of an upcoming freedom march, King noted that it was "better to go through life with a scarred-up body than a scarred-up soul."
In a 1967 sermon, MLK spoke of the hardships of struggling for what is right and just: "When you tell the truth and take a stand, sometimes it means that you will walk the streets with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means losing a job ... means being abused and scorned. It may mean having a 7-, 8-year-old child asking a daddy, 'Why do you have to go to jail so much?' And I've long since learned that to be a follower of Jesus Christ means taking up the cross."
MLK was the keynote speaker at the 1963 March on Washington that brought the nation's leading civil rights activists and organizations to the capital along with some 250,000 people of all races and creeds. His "I Have a Dream" speech is one of the most important and eloquent addresses in the nation's political history and galvanized a civil rights movement that would lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 1964, MLK was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, at age 35 the youngest recipient of that prestigious award.
In a 1962 speech, King stated that there were three major evils in the world today: "the evil of war, the evil of economic injustice and the evil of racial injustice." During the last two years of his life, MLK turned his attention to issues of economic and political justice.
He became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, viewing this conflict as an un-Christian, ungodly, needless destruction of lives, both American and Vietnamese. In a sermon two months before he was killed, MLK stated, "God didn't call America to engage in a senseless war, as the war in Vietnam." He also believed this conflict was a terrible injustice against the poor in this country, who disproportionately contributed military personnel to do the killing and dying.
MLK stridently objected to the tremendous cost (and waste) of money needed to fuel the war. In a 1967 speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence," he called for churches and synagogues to lead the way in urging the government to disengage from the mistaken commitment that was the Vietnam War: "We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible." MLK argued passionately that to do less was unacceptable: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
King spoke out against economic injustice, noting that "something is wrong with capitalism" in the world's wealthiest nation where tens of millions still live in poverty. For MLK, "all labor has dignity" and "a living wage should be the right of all Americans," a theme echoing across the country some 45 years later.
In conjunction with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in 1967 MLK launched the Poor People's Campaign, an organization that would address economic justice and housing issues on behalf of all poor Americans. A champion of the underdog, MLK went to Memphis (where he would assassinated) to help 1,300 municipal sanitation workers in their efforts to gain higher wages and union recognition.
John Gehring, a writer for "Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good," notes MLK understood that racism, poverty and militarism were not isolated issues. Rather, these social ills were systemic and interrelated, and as such, require a broad and deep social transformation to overcome.
For all the evil and injustice he witnessed and struggled to make right, Dr. King's most important gift to us is his message of enduring hope: "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. ... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology as a professor at the University of San Diego.
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Lischer, R. (1997) "The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Word that Moved America," Oxford University Press: New York
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