AP photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being arrested in 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama for "loitering."

Today we commemorate the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr., who extolled the transformative power of self-sacrifice and love, and led a movement which indelibly contributed to tearing down the walls of legal segregation.

Dr. King’s work called attention to the inherent injustice of racial and economic segregation, discriminatory housing laws and employment practices. His commitment to nonviolence exemplified a form of activism that was devoted to practical goals, while guided by the better angels of human nature.

Over the past few years, American politics has been riddled by mean-spirited partisanship, even bigotry. It seems certain that King would have been dismayed.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is drumming up support by demeaning Latinos, Muslims and women. Video technology has exposed commonplace police brutality directed against African Americans.

King would, undoubtedly, have supported the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality. Racism in the criminal justice system was after all an issue in his own lifetime. King said,

“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” 

King faulted racism and poverty for most social ills. He strongly disbelieved in “blaming the victim.” He disapproved of rioting, but called it “the language of the unheard,” and an act of desperation. He asked that society sympathize with victims, but condemn slums, poverty, and unemployment. 

Today, when critics attempt to portray Black Lives Matter activists as “rioters” (though the demonstrations have been largely peaceful), King would have responded that the movement’s critics are avoiding the real issue of systemic injustice.

No doubt King would have decried recent tragic mass shootings and the failure to pass even limited gun control measures in Congress.

Early in his life, before becoming committed to nonviolence, King himself owned a weapon. But he gave it up, as his belief grew in “the value of compassion and nonviolence” that “helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.” Given his belief in conflict resolution and transformational nonviolence, King would have wanted to see America become a society with as few guns as possible.

In his day, King promoted a massive readjustment of national expenditures. He believed that excessive military spending siphoned money from programs at home. He hoped to see “a reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.” 

King opposed the Vietnam War, and other American military interventions on the grounds that they were fruitless, inhumane, and fiscally wasteful. He said,

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

There can be no doubt that King would  have had similar criticisms of foreign wars and military interventions today.

King admonished his own generation that the time to undo racism is now, and he will continue to admonish future generations: “The time is always right to do what is right.”

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org

Section: 

Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

More

Labor leader, civil rights activist, feminist, and living legend.

You don't get more trustworthy than the University of Washington, right? Nightmarish.

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).


Public School Shakedown

Progressive Media Project

Newsletter