At the time of his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was widening his scope. He had been the unquestionable leader among many important change-bringers of the Civil Rights Movement, but by 1968 he felt that enough had been accomplished for him to add poverty and war to his agenda.
Some of his fellow African American activists disagreed, just as some had disagreed about King’s devotion to non-violence. For me, both of these moves on King’s part mark his singularity.
In some ways, King’s non-violence was almost too white-friendly. Many believe that his reputation has been co-opted and rendered touchy-feely, even impotent, by the powerful who treat him as though he were not a radical. What many celebrate on MLK Day is this user-friendly Christian MLK.
But King’s inclusion of poverty and war on his agenda mark him as a social reformer of an extraordinary order. In 1968, he was attempting to organize the “Poor People’s Campaign” and had come to believe in a guaranteed income as a way to combat poverty. He stated very clearly that he sought to address issues that created poverty among both black and white. He also believed, as the video above indicates, that the Vietnam War was an enormous moral wrong, and that the powerful of whatever race that promulgated war were wrong. He knew that war was also about money. And he showed that he was a kind of Christian that is all too rare these days: one who was dedicated to justice and fairness and the good of all humans, no matter their station or situation.
Today I’m not here to debate whether there is ever a justifiable war or whether a guaranteed income would have the desired effect, but to note that Martin Luther King, Jr., saw beyond immediate, personal causes. This is so rare as to be a miracle. Just this week, Harper’s magazine, in its often devastating Index (description), noted that 57 (out of 535) members of the U.S. Congress are among the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans (info from the Center for Responsive Politics). I will bet that if you asked after the wealthiest 5 percent, members of Congress would be overwhelmingly members of the club. Most of them, it seems, find it impossible to look beyond their own self-interests in forming policy. And that is the simple and only reason I can see that we are still indulging in tax breaks for those wealthiest of Americans. It has been demonstrated over and over that that stuff does not trickle down. We are not really living in a representative government, but an oligarchy.
I don’t know what Martin Luther King, Jr., would have done in the face of today’s current political scene. He would have turned 83 years old yesterday, and it would be possible that he’d still be alive had he not been assassinated. My bet, however, is that in spite of his all-too-human fondness for silk suits and pretty women, he would have preached for us to set narrow personal interests aside for the sake of the humanity that he loved so much. He was the genuine item, and I pay him all due respect on this day, both as a non-violent activist and a radical reformer.