America, Wake Up!

In the last section of the final chapter of his June 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Martin Luther King, Jr., focuses on the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. Analyzing and assessing the persistence of discrimination, the wealth gap, and warmongering, he proclaims that the United States needs a “true revolution of values.” He characterizes the urgency of the moment and argues for a redistribution of income and assets, a restructuring of society that embraces a democratic socialism like Sweden, and stronger diplomatic efforts to build a safer, more harmonious world.

At the time, there were many critics of his book. People announced the end of the civil rights movement and eulogized King as a has-been who was now out of his element and could not conjure up any type of leadership for the future. Of course, these death-knell commentaries and punditries were primarily attempts to divert attention from the issues of poverty, institutional racism, and American exceptionalism by making ad hominem attacks against King. However, this xenophobia and fear mongering did not deter him from delivering countless speeches supporting a guaranteed annual income, educational opportunities, affordable housing, job training and retraining, and affirmative action. He was wont to aver, “the whole Jericho Road must be changed,” and pointed to altering the status quo through concerted, continual, and nonviolent confrontation with the socioeconomic and political structures, processes, policies, and services of our society.

In July of that year, King addressed the “present crisis in civil rights” by declaring the need for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” He asserted, “An edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” By November and December of 1967, with the prodding of Marian Wright and Sen. Robert Kennedy, King announced the SCLC’s intention to organize a Poor People’s Campaign in the nation’s capital, beginning in the late spring/early summer of the following year: to demonstrate the plight of the needy, to demand fundamental change in capitalist structures and processes, and to insist monies supporting the futile war in Vietnam revert back adequately to fund the domestic War on Poverty. Subsequently, he set out to publicize this campaign of civil disobedience across the country and to secure commitments from people of every hue.

However, King got waylaid in Memphis, Tennessee, by the garbage workers’ strike, and he was assassinated before he could establish the campaign in D.C. For many, it was a relief that King was gone, for he was whittling away at those who still supported U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam. It turned out he was right about that unwinnable involvement, right about the use of poor and disadvantaged young men to die on the battlefields, right about the crippling increase in the chasm between the rich and the poor, right about the white backlash and the entrenchment of institutional racism after the walls of segregation came tumbling down, right about racial profiling and the absence of community policing, right about the need for increasing the minimum wage, and right about the necessity of effectuating positive social change. Most of his critics were wrong, for they were ignorant of how the revolution King sought would redound to the favor of the entire citizenry. Their reactionary stance against his opposition to gradualism, or inertia, eventuated in the worsening of income inequality, the prison-industrial complex, Western imperialism, our resort to war, and the arrogation of power and authority to corporate America and narrow special interests.

King’s patriotic dissatisfaction with and dissent against U.S. domestic and foreign policies gave voice to those forced, or compelled, to be silent and straightened the backs of the numberless people suffering under “the iron feet of oppression.” We rarely hear that palpable, barefaced eloquence in our contemporary society! Instead, we listen to the many and sundry excuses for staying with the current state of affairs and not rocking the boat—despite the devastating turbulence of establishment structures and processes. We are fed the lines that revolution is not possible and change is unrealistic. Balderdash! The saying by George Santayana is so true: “Those who cannot remember the past [and learn from their mistakes] are condemned to repeat it.”

Even though a pervasive revolutionary spirit forged the formulation and formation of a new nation, we have thenceforward repeatedly decried and suppressed advocates of revolution–even if their causes were intent on constructive social change.  Often, many who would benefit from such change have opposed it because of overwhelming uncertainty, neurosis, or dread about being in a different environment.  Just as voters frequently cast ballots against their interests, today, would-be beneficiaries of change routinely have regularly allowed xenophobic people in power—who would profit from maintaining the status quo—to scare them into submission and discourage them from pursuit of a more egalitarian society.

The brilliant King was characterized as stupid, lacking in specificity regarding his blueprint for change, incapable of discussing American foreign policy, and unable to lead the ongoing nonviolent struggle for equity, justice, and peace.  He kept going anyhow, although suffering intermittently from bouts of depression.  In retrospect, we realize his critics were primarily blowing smoke, so to speak, and as Shakespeare put in the mouth of Macbeth, they were “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!”  They were trying to despoil King’s seeds of change by arguing he was on infertile ground and little, if anything, could come of it!  Unfortunately, many listened. Sadder still, many were colleagues in the earlier battles against Jim Crow, yet they joined in the calumny—abandoning King for greener pastures among perpetuators of the status quo!  They were blinded by the cataracts of greed, selfishness, complacency, and contentment and could no longer envision the bright future of an emerging beloved community. They opted for cowardice, popularity, prudence, and convenience, instead of for morality, ethics, compassion, and sacrifice.  They embraced and personified Mahatma Gandhi’s explication of the seven deadly social sins–wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, and politics without principle–and relinquished King’s appeal for distributive justice and a more equitable democratic republic.  For shame!

King was smarter than most. After he received his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University, many prestigious universities sought him out to teach at their universities. King refused. He humbled himself and journeyed back to the South to become a country preacher and to become a pastor that stressed the importance of community outreach. Ralph Waldo Emerson captured it well: “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

The story of Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving was poignant for King. He lifted up the fact that as the character went up one of the Catskill Mountains to get away from his nagging wife and the drudgery of work, a picture of King George III of England was posted on a sign at the town’s inn; but when he came down from the mountain, twenty years later, after falling asleep from some powerful moonshine, a picture of George Washington was on the sign. According to King, the essence of the story was not the length of time Van Winkle had slept or that his wife was dead or he had a son who bore his name—oh, no! Rather, it was that “he had slept through a revolution that would alter the course of human history”! Van Winkle had slept through a revolution! Today, we, too, are sleeping through a revolution in our midst. Awake!

Awake! Before it is too late!

About mdbwell

Pres., Project for the Beloved Community, Inc.; B.A.--Wesleyan University; M.Div.--Yale University; Ph.D.--Boston University; Summer Study--Harvard University; Social ethicist; Ordained minister; Advocate for the poor
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