At the end of the classic Civil Rights Movement that fought for desegregation in public accommodations and safeguarding the right to vote, Martin Luther King, Jr., began to focus on the plight of northern cities. The issues there were manifold: discrimination in housing, education, employment, and so forth. It was very difficult for those ensconced in poverty to find a way out of economic insecurity when those in power ignored their cries and ensured that the status quo would persist into the foreseeable future.
Seemingly at every turn, King was stymied by systemic, institutionalized racism. As the United States became increasingly involved in the Vietnam War, the young disadvantaged were disproportionately sent to the battlefield to fight for others’ freedom, the very thing they themselves did not possess as citizens back home. King’s rhetoric began to sound more radical, more militant, during what would prove to be the final three years of his life. Although his perception of the challenges in this nation had not changed significantly over the years, he increasingly demonstrated his disappointment with his native land over continuing to deny opportunities for a quality life to all of its inhabitants.
Hence, King commenced speaking on what he dubbed the triplet of evils: racism, economic exploitation (i.e., materialism), and militarism. These three pillars of our society made it next to impossible to improve the poor circumstances in which one was born. Various leaders of the waning movement began proposing policies such as a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantage” or some kind of Marshall Plan to alter the life chances for those traditionally ostracized at birth. Programs similar to the Works Progress Administration during the Depression years were part of the discussion. King himself had recommended a guaranteed annual income to support those who were incapable of making ends meet through no fault of their own.
King stated that what this country needed is “a revolution of values.” His intention was to argue that every human being should be accorded dignity and respect. His desire was to point out the flagrant injustices we as a people have levied against particular categories of people. He advocated a radical shift in our thinking, because he had realized such inhumanity in the body politic is blatantly immoral.
Here we are 91 years since King was born and 52 years this coming April since he was martyred. Sadly, the three evils he was addressing are still pervasive in our world. Issues of race still abound from the boardrooms to the streets, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has significantly widened, i.e., poverty still plagues too many, and the resort to violence in international affairs has become easier with the advancing technology in our military arsenals. Sometimes, it seems the evils King sought to address have intensified or worsened. Moreover, attention to them is similarly weak and solutions to them are not forthcoming.
Of course, there are many issues in addition to the isms to which King increasingly alluded. Perhaps, our national holiday commemorating King’s life should include training and other endeavors that would highlight the unethical factors that impede the progress of our democratic republic and how to eliminate them. A serious understanding of what King discerned about our society and an exploration of how he attempted to resolve the problems are incumbent upon us who desire a better tomorrow.
Needless to say, reflecting on King’s theological ethics and social concerns around his holiday is not enough. The urgency of the oppression, injustice, and lack of progressive endeavors to alleviate the evils is so great that efforts to eliminate them must occur throughout the year. We live in a society that claims to have the noblest of religious values, yet we fundamentally demonstrate very little regard for those who are struggling. Hence, King’s identification of the need for a revolution of values deserves restating because we are not living according to those values in any ongoing, substantive ways.
Let’s get busy!