MLK (Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) was the champion of the Civil Rights Movement. Over the course of his long career as social justice warrior, MLK won respect and admiration around the world. The base of his power was absolute moral clarity and consistency. For Dr. King non-violence was more than a sacred principle. It was a tool he skillfully used to apply pressure and discomfort to an unjust American social order.
Today Americans of all stripes honor this great man on MLK Day every third Monday in January. Unfortunately those who would oppose his fight for justice sometimes distort his words. And yes that’s exactly what MLK was, a fighter. He’s too often reduced to his famous ” I Have a Dream Speech” and his other statements about the brotherhood of man.
Dr. King was a man of peace. But he didn’t believe in peace at all costs. Even non-violent protest isn’t truly peaceful, no form of real protest is. MLK knew his tactics were both controversial and confrontational. This was on purpose. For how do we fight evil if we don’t confront it? How do we get help for our pain if no one knows we’re hurting? King and the Movement held up a mirror before America’s eyes. They shined a light on U.S. bigotry for the whole world to see.
MLK’s legacy is one all Americans should gladly share. But too many times the Right has used King’s words as weapons against the very people he fought and died for. They act as if King would support their efforts to disenfranchise young folks and people of color. They tell us the behavior of modern day blacks is an embarrassment to his memory. And that he would be proudly Republican. This is a huge lie.
MLK on White Complacency
Dr. King constantly questioned the reluctance of white liberals to fully commit to the cause of equality. He grew impatient with the glacial pace of change. He no longer wanted to be told to hold on, or just wait. This next two quote expresses this sentiment so eloquently.
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
- Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963
MLK on Black Power
The term Black Power was popularized after the James Meridith March Against Fear in the summer of 1966. Dr. King was against the use of “black power” as a slogan, calling it an “unwise choice.” But it’s clear MLK had his own ideas about black power and attempted to transform its meaning.
“I contend that the cry of “Black Power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
- Mike Wallace interview 1966
MLK on Violence
Of course King believed in non-violence, but he understood the anger and impatience of the younger generations. Going beyond condemning violence, he invited America to ask itself why “violent rebellions” were taking place in cities across the country. It was clear America needed to have a deeper conversation. MLK was attempting to start the dialogue.
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
- “The Other America,” 1968
MLK On Economic Justice
When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968,twenty five percent of African Americans lived below the federal poverty line. Shamefully, that percentage hasn’t changed in the nearly half a century since. MLK’s movement fought for economic as well as social justice for all. He often expressed outrage that the richest nation on earth had so many living in poverty. As we know all too well in the 21st century, an unequal society is an unjust society.
“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
- “The Three Evils of Society,” 1967
“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”
- Southern Christian Leadership Conference speech, 1967
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
- “Revolution of Values,” 1967
“Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.”
- “The Three Evils of Society,” 1967
MLK’s Challenge to White Americans
Obviously racial equality can’t be achieved by African Americans without some white cooperation. Realizing this, Martin Luther King wasn’t afraid to get in the face of whites when necessary. MLK believed white supremacy to be a cancer on the American spirit. And that it damaged both communities, black and white.
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans…These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”
- Where Do We Go From Here?, 1967
MLK on Reparations
Today the idea of paying African Americans for the atrocities of slavery is very controversial. Very few modern black leaders have the courage to even bring it up. Most whites hate the idea. They say blacks don’t deserve it even though other groups received compensation with little to no controversy. These reactions are due to fear, guilt, ignorance, denial or just good old fashioned bigotry. Notably, MLK’s call for compensation included both poor whites and African Americans. The following quotes show us how King made the case for reparations.
“At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.”
“today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality.”
“Frederick Douglass said we should have 40 acres and a mule,” Instead, the nation left blacks “penniless and illiterate after 244 years of slavery.” Calculating that $20 a week for the 4 million slaves would have added up to $800 billion, he noted acerbically, “They owe us a lot of money.”
- Martin Luther King speech at a mass meeting,1968