By The Progressive on January 19, 2009

What would Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate on January ninetenth, say to Barack Obama, inaugurated as President of the United States on January twentieth? A friend of mine is judging student essays on that question for the King Holiday. It is a good question, with answers that might surprise some people.

King thought in terms of progressive phases of history. He saw phase one of the American freedom movement as the struggle for legal integration, equal opportunity, and full voting rights. That struggle was most intense between 1955 and 1965, crowned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and teh Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is what most people think of when they think of King.

After that, King demanded a phase two, which he defined as a struggle for economic equality. He didn't mean we would all make the same income, but that the playing field should be levelled up somewhat for poor and working people. "Something is wrong
with capitalism as it nos stands in the United States," he said. "It takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes."

In phase two, King sought remedies for capitalism's defects. He launched his Poor Peoples Campaign demanding that government divert funds being spent for war to education, housing, and jobs. King also went to Memphis to support a strike of sanitation workers for the right to have a union. King, saying, "all labor has dignity," supported unionization as a portal to a decent life.

In phase two, King also vigorously challenged America's militarist foreign policy. He saw the slaughter of millions in Indochina and regretfully condemned his country as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Guns and bombs would never create security for anyone; violent means would only produce violent ends. The massacre in Gaza and the rockets hitting Israel today will undoubtedly demonstrate the truth of that insight once again.

Today, King would urge Obama to continue building a broad consensus for change, to pass new labor laws to help workers organize unions, to gain health care for all, and to put America back to work. He would support Obama's pledge to restore civil liberties and the rule of law, after the travesty of the Bush years, and to use diplomacy to bring peace. Like Obama, King sought tangible gains for people, not pie in the sky.

But King would go further. He wanted a new kind of society based on love and justice. He wanted America to undertake a moral revolution to replace self-seeking individualism with concern for the common good. He said racism, poverty and war are intertwined problems that can only be resolved together.

King wanted a larger agenda and a better kind of world. To put America to work, to overcome systemic racial and other forms of inequality, to study war no more: that agenda would constitute a politics of hope worthy of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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