Monday, January 17, 2005

The content of his character

This morning on NPR I heard a reading of Martin Luther King's famous speech from the March on Washington -- the "I Have A Dream" speech -- and once again I found it inspiring and was moved. It is appropriate that the nation revisit that speech which rallied the Civil Rights movement and the nation to hope.

But it is also important that we not freeze King in 1963. Yes, he called for freedom to ring from every hill in Mississippi and throughout the country, and that goal has not yet been fully achieved 40 years later. But he also, in the five subsequent years before his death, turned his eye to other realms of our nation's failings, and these thoughts we seldom revisit. Many of them are apt today, as much of his energy went into calls for an end to war (especially in Vietnam) and explorations of the use of economic leverage for social justice (e.g., boycotting large companies until they agreed to use black contractors, banks, and newspaper ads for their stores in black communities). Many of these ideas made the government of his time as nervous as certain types of discussion and dissent rile our government today. So, in honor of Dr. King, a selection of heretical/trouble-making thoughts, and a few with continued hope.
I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our nation: The great initiative in this war is our; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
(from "Beyond Vietnam," April, 1967)
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
I knew that I could never 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.
Operation Breadbasket has a very simple program, but a powerful one. It simply says, "If you respect my dollar, you must respect my person." It simply says that we will no longer spend our money where we cannot get substantial jobs.
(from "Where Do We Go From Here?" August, 1967)
The ghetto is a domestic colony that's constantly drained without being replaced.
Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose.
Five years ago [John F. Kennedy] said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.
(from "Beyond Vietnam")
I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.

I refuse to accept the idea that the "is-ness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "ought-ness" that forever confronts him.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unvolding events which surround him. ...

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.
(from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, December, 1964)
Enjoy the holiday, whether or not you've been granted time off from work. A holiday for somebody younger than most of our parents!

Links(quotes taken from A Call to Conscience, The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., C. Carson and K. Shepard, eds., Warner Books, New York, 2001; Amazon link here)

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