The Troubled Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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By Dr. Mark Naison

As an historian and political activist, I find the legacy of Dr. King to be as haunting and as troubling as it is inspiring. Don’t get me wrong, he deserves the national holiday that honors his memory. No one person did more to transform the United States into a multiracial political democracy — one in which race and national origin do not restrict people from voting, from serving on juries, from running for political office, or from making use of public facilities — than Martin Luther King.

The two most important pieces of legislation that ended legally sanctioned segregation in the South –the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed as a direct consequence of huge, non-violent protests organized by Dr. King…the first in Birmingham in the spring of 1963 and the second in Selma in the spring of 1965. In each instance, Reverend King chose to mount large protests in cities in which he knew that authorities would engage in horrific acts of violence against protesters. Thus, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would be compelled to intervene to preserve America’s reputation abroad…as well as their own legitimacy as national leaders.

Each protest was a high-risk undertaking conceived by a master political strategist who understood the constraints on Presidential action—as well as a moral leader capable of inspiring acts of great personal sacrifice among his followers. In short order, the Jim Crow system — a product of the early 20th century in the South — quickly disintegrated When I was doing research in Alabama in the early 1970s, the signs indicating “White” and “Negro” bathrooms…Negro sitting rooms…Negro restaurants…Negro parks, Negro hospitals all disappeared—cast aside to the scrap heap of America’s sorry history of racial injustice. African-American friends in Alabama now voted, ran for office, and served on juries, without putting their lives at risk.

What a remarkable legacy! No protest leader in American history did more to change unjust laws and free people from arbitrary legal constraints based on race and national origin than did Dr. King. He did not look back on these legislative victories with satisfaction—comfortable with the future he saw unfolding. He died in 1968 — a deeply troubled man, frightened by America’s trajectory. The twin specters of war and economic inequality weighed heavily upon him. He envisioned forms of injustice, of violence, and of exploitation that would replace those of the past.

The rapid escalation of the War in Vietnam, engineered by the same president, Lyndon Johnson, who pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act, left Dr. King deeply shaken. Sending hundreds of thousands of American troops — most of them drawn from the poor and the working classes — into a small, poor country and subjecting that country to saturation bombing and the use of chemical defoliants — seemed to be the acts of a valueless, corrupt nation.

In a speech Dr. King gave at Riverside Church in the Spring of 1967, which will likely be remembered as the greatest anti-war statement in modern American history, he expressed in near apocalyptic language what he saw happening in Vietnam, saying he feared the nation was approaching “spiritual death:”

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

King feared that the Civil Rights Act, the anti-poverty programs, and other legislation passed by Lyndon Johnson as part of the “Great Society” would be undermined by the capitalist drive for profit and new markets that motivated American policy in Vietnam. Riots in places like Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark — in which Black people and Brown people felt trapped in patterns of dire poverty and injustice — troubled him deeply. Dr. King began to wonder whether the promise of American democracy could be achieved without tackling the insidious cycle of economic slavery.

In what 1968, the final year of his life, Mr. Luther King focused his activism on uniting poor and working class people — across racial lines — to fight for workplace rights, greater economic opportunity, and redistribution of wealth. As his major political initiative, Dr. King organized the Poor People’s Campaign—culminating in the encampment of the poor in Washington, DC. He died in Memphis, TN, while participating in a movement to fight for higher wages and better working conditions for that city’s sanitation workers.

Martin Luther King delivered many powerful speeches that year — the one that I always share with my students — is a sermon on leadership that he gave at Ebeneezer Baptist Church…immortalized under the name “The Drum Major Instinct”. Prophesizing his own death, he told the congregation how he would like to be remembered. The words that follow provide a haunting window into Dr. King’s self-perception on the eve of his assassination and challenge each of us to acknowledge our own ambitions and to dedicate ourselves to serving humanity.

“…every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long…tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

If we apply this standard to ourselves today, we will be as restless and troubled as Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the last years of his life…demanding justice for the two million people in prison and the ten million economically and politically disenfranchised ex-inmates…protesting the wars that we continue to wage…questioning the enormous size of our military…insisting that we address the scourge of poverty among our nation’s children…demanding a rise in the the stagnant incomes of American workers who struggle in an economy that rewards the rich and the super-rich with an obscenely disproportionate share of our nation’s wealth. While we justly celebrate Dr. King’s vision and his achievements, let us not forget his prophetic indictment of war and of economic inequality during the last years of his life, and take up the challenge he gave to us to be “Drum Majors for Justice.”

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