"Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying." --MLK
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Martin Luther King experienced the violence and ugliness of white racism up close. He felt the pain and witnessed the lasting damage it inflicted on innocent blacks (and, worst of all, on their children). His response to this experience was one of the greatest triumphs of the human spirit the world has ever witnessed.
He did not hate the oppressors of his race. Instead of striking back at them, he was passionately nonviolent. King explained his motivation for nonviolence both as a tactic and a way of life in a sermon he gave in 1957 on Matthew 5:44-45 where Jesus says: "Love your enemies."
King told the congregation that the first reason that we should love our enemies is that "hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum." A second reason to love rather than hate is that hate "destroys the very center of your creative response to life and the universe; so love everybody. Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence."
Most importantly for the cause of racial justice, King says, "if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption." You make the world better not by destroying your oppressors, but by enabling them to participate in a better world.
He could have kept his focus on undoing the harm white racism had done to his people--so much still needs to be done even now. But his heart and vision were big enough to see racial injustice as part of a wider and deeper evil that included economic injustice and militarism, which was oppressing whites and nonwhites alike:
"There are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike" (Where Do We Go From Here, 1967). He is saying that the injustice of poverty is not that the poverty rate is higher among blacks than among whites. Instead, it is the very existence of so much poverty among both whites and nonwhites in a society with so much wealth.
He believed that the time had come for raising the campaign for racial justice to a higher plane: "We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights. . . after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can't solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power" (Staff Report to SCLC Conference, May, 1967). King had become radicalized--a nonviolent revolutionary.
We need the revolution King was talking about even more today, because economic inequality has gotten much worse. As reported by David Brodwin of USNews and World Report, in the U.S. "incomes among the top one percent rose by 31.4 percent between 2009 and 2012, while incomes for everyone else grew just 0.4 percent. The top decile (10%) of earners in the economy now captures more than half the total income."
According to a Jan. 20 report by Oxfam, "The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That's 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world's population." The U.S. stands tall in a world of inequality. The top 10% of Americans own over 70% of the nation's wealth, while the bottom 40% have essentially zero net worth.
Exactly a year before his assassination, King addressed a packed Riverside Church in New York City. His speech was titled "Beyond Vietnam--A Time to Break Silence." He lamented the diversion of funds from poverty programs to finance the build-up of American forces in Vietnam. And how, he asked, could he preach nonviolence at home while remaining silent about the fire and destruction rained on Vietnamese villages by "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government"?
King reminded his audience that the U.S. had gotten into Vietnam by siding with the French who were attempting to restore their Indochinese empire after WWII. We were trying to crush a nationalist force that had defeated Japanese and then French colonial armies. He saw that the same arrogant belief in racial superiority that had shaped America's treatment of blacks enabled the U.S. to justify to itself the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Indochinese nonwhites.
King's speech was immediately denounced by 168 major newspapers. A Harris poll found that nearly three quarters of the American people , and 55% of the black community disapproved of his speech. He had strayed too far from the safe topic of discrimination against American blacks.
It seems clear that King would have spoken out against Bush's Iraq War and Obama's Afghanistan War, and he would have denounced the worsening economic inequality in present-day America. His assassination in 1968 cleared the way for mainstream politicians to locate him within the comfort zone of racial equality.
As Jason Hirthler put it so well: "In death, his economic and foreign policy challenges were interred with his casket, and he was posthumously pedestaled for his commitments to civil rights alone--a cause that no right-thinking human could deny."