The country celebrated Martin Luther King Day earlier this week.
Americans were treated to various media biographies on the life of MLK and his influence on the civil rights movement in the United States. Throughout the course of his life, MLK earned a well-deserved reputation as a key figure who fought for a racially integrated society – something we eventually achieved – but his thoughts and actions went well beyond the realm of civil rights.
Politically, MLK considered himself a democratic socialist. Here is a portion of a speech MLK gave to his staff in Frogmore S.C., in November 1966:
“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry…. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong… with capitalism…. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
One of MLK’s last acts of courage was supporting a group of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. right before his assassination in April 1968. He told the workers: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.” King believed the struggle in Memphis exposed the need for economic equality and social justice that he hoped his Poor People’s Campaign would highlight.
MLK also served as a voice for the cause of peace. The 2015 book “The Radical King,” edited by writer and social critic Cornel West, covers MLK’s dedication to this cause. Mr. King idolized India independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi and “Radical King” speaks of a sermon he delivered on Gandhi’s life. MLK gave the Indian leader credit for lifting the domination of the British Empire over India without the help of an army or military might. In this sermon, he credited Gandhi for living a life filled with love and nonviolence and absent of hatred. King used similar peaceful tactics to free our country from segregation.
During the latter part of his life, MLK became an opponent of our country’s controversial war in Vietnam, ignoring the advice of those who thought civil rights and the question of Vietnam don’t mix. In a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City in the spring of 1967, MLK talked of how the war was draining funds from President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s War on Poverty. Dr. King felt that the war in Vietnam threatened our country’s reputation for revolution, democracy and freedom and that we were spreading images of violence and militarism.
In the same sermon, MLK talked about values, a common issue with today’s political leaders. He wanted the U.S. to make a transformation from a “thing oriented society” to a “people oriented society.” MLK said that when machines and profit become more important than people, that “the giant triplets of racism, materialism and racism are incapable of being conquered.” MLK won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.