The King You Didn’t Know Is the King You Need To Know

Another Martin Luther King Day has come and gone.  Maybe you observed it by attending a King Day observance or you checked out Selma (which I did, but that’s for another time).  Maybe it was just an excuse not to go to work and you spent the day not even remotely thinking about Dr. King or his legacy.

Maybe you just can’t stand hearing “I Have A Dream” even one more time.  If so, you can’t be blamed if King’s Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence speech missed you.  It missed most Americans when MLK gave it on April 4, 1967.  Exactly one year later King was dead, slain by an American sniper named James Earl Ray for reasons and motivations which remained murky.

The speech is important because it was so different from the speeches King had given before.  This King was angrier and less hopeful  He was not the warm and fuzzy Santa Claus of race relations he’d been made out to be.   This King distressed at the direction American was going and he despaired seeing it debased by the immorality of the Vietnam War.   This speech wasn’t filled with the comforting words of the humble Baptist preacher nor is the bluntness of  the language the kind politicians feel safe invoking now.

This is not the Dreamer.   The Dream ran headlong into the nightmare of Vietnam and it sickened him.  That man has his time and place.

This is another Martin Luther King,  Raw.  Radical.  Straight, No Chaser.

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. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

American Sniper Victim

American Sniper Victim

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The Long Shadow of America’s Greatest King

When your birth date falls on the same day as the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday observance you accept the fact that you’re going to have to settle for second billing and like it.   Fortunately, Dr. King is one of my few heroes and sharing my day with him honors and humbles me.

As I have said in the past, King was far more than an action figure with a string in the back that says “I Have A Dream”  when pulled.   That’s too simple and King was far too complicated to be reduced down to a catchphrase.

King was not a popular man at the time of his assassination.   Breaking with President Johnson over the Vietnam War had done more than cost King the best friend the movement ever had in the White House.  He was vilified by the Left and the Right.  Black revolutionaries sneered at his message of non-violence.

But most of all,  King was tired.  Tired of marching. Tired of re-fighting battles that should have already been won.   Tired of being away from his wife and children so much.   Tired of the death threats on his life.

Michael Eric Dyson, scholar and author of I May Not Get There With You,  the account of King’s later years says we should note King cut less than an iconic figure at the time of his death.

[King] was at the low point of his popularity at the time of his death. When Martin Luther King Jr. met his end on that balcony in Memphis, he was indeed at the low point of his popularity for the first time in nearly a decade. He didn’t make the most admired list for the Gallup poll. Very few universities wanted to hear from him. No American publishers wanted to publish a book by him. And he was being questioned, even in African-American culture, for the relevancy of his non-violent approach. Dr. King was facing tremendous odds. His back was against the wall. His resources were drying up within his own organization. He was fighting with a prominent northern board member about whether or not he should speak out against the war in Vietnam and paid the price for it. So, he was facing opposition from within his organization and more broadly from the civil rights movement, and even more broadly from the mainstream American press as well as from public policymakers and politicians in America. He was quite on the outside and outskirts of popularity and acceptance in America. This notion that Dr. King was widely praised is one of nostalgia and of amnesia, and it should be combated.

Some might think it audacious and brazen to call King the greatest American ever.   Shouldn’t that sort of accolade be reserved for presidents and statesmen, not a Baptist preacher?

It is neither audacious or brazen to tell the truth and I have no problem defending Dr. King as a greater transformative figure than George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt.   A listing of the Greatest Americans places King at third, ahead of Washington and just behind Lincoln.  Ronald Reagan was named Number One, so take that as you will (I take it as patently ridiculous).

It is expected that presidents will be–for better or for worse–transformative figures.   For a private citizen to do so the unmeasurable help of millions of dollars backing them up and effecting their change by way of non-violent resistance against the evil of state-sanctioned racial discrimination is almost impossible to fathom.   Bill Gates with all his billions could not have done what King did with shoe leather and faith.

By no means was King the only one marching.   It took the commitment of thousands of like-minded souls willing to be spat upon, beaten, bitten by dogs, and in some cases murdered for their courage to be the change they sought to bring to the world.

Without them and the leadership and inspiration of a Dr. King, the part of the Dream that was realized with the election of Barack Obama does not happen.   Without Dr King there is no President Obama.

There is an urge by some to see Obama as the realization of King’s dream.  I  understand this urge, but it should be resisted. Obama is not so much the manifestation of the Dream as he is the greatest beneficiary of The Dream.   King’s mark on the world is established beyond dispute.   Obama is still attempting to make good on his and like any politician it’s a mixed bag.  “Change We Can Believe In” is hard to bring about when there is a rigid status quo resistant to changing a thing just as Dr King’s dream seemed like a waking nightmare to his opponents.

On MLK Day the man who would be Obama’s replacement praises the preacher man.  Writing on his Facebook page, Mitt Romney says,  “Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an occasion to reflect on the legacy of an outstanding American. Dr. King not only believed in the fundamental truth that we are all made in God’s image, he fought for that truth in a campaign that brought our country closer to fulfilling its historic promise of liberty and justice for all. The United States has made enormous strides toward racial equality in the decades since Dr. King’s death, but we must never rest until all people are judged, in his immortal words, not ‘by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

On the Today Show,  Romney, who got wealthy by shutting down companies and putting workers on the street said all this talk about income inequality was simply “envy.”

“You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus one percent — and those people who have been most successful will be in the one percent — you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.”

A clueless plutocrat like Mitt Romney could never understand a humble man like King who was motivated by a fierce sense of justice, not personal wealth.  If King were doing in 2012 what he was doing in 1968  Romney would not be mumbling empty platitudes he neither wrote nor believes.   He’d be condemning King as a dangerous radical who wanted to take from the 1 percent and give to the 99 percent.

I Mittens ever read King’s A Proper Sense of Priorities speech he would have ample reason to be scared right down to his silk skivvies.

Someone said to me not long ago, it was a member of the press, ‘Dr. King, since you face so many criticisms and since you are going to hurt the budget of your organization, don’t you feel that you should kind of change and fall in line with the Administration’s policy. Aren’t you hurting the civil rights movement and people who once respected you may lose respect for you because you’re involved in this controversial issue in taking the stand against the war.’ And I had to look with a deep understanding of why he raised the question and with no bitterness in my heart and say to that man, “I’m sorry sir, but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader.  I don’t determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion.” Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus.  On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.

Mitt wouldn’t know a thing about that.  That’s why he isn’t a leader and should never be president.

Dr. King had so much more to say than just “I Have A Dream.” Take two minutes out of your day and get hip to a King many Americans do not know.   The radical Dr. King.  The threat to both racists and reactionaries Dr. King.  The Dr, King that was too dangerous to live.

I could not love Martin more if he were my father.  He inspires me and guides me as much as a father ever has a son or daughter.   This is his day and the legacy of America’s greatest King is far richer and more complex and enduring than a fading memory of a distant figure whose legacy has been watered down to four words.