Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
How Dr. King's response to the many challenges he encountered during the last year of his life can provide a source of and strength as we wrestle with the many difficulties facing us at this time.
Had he lived to see 2022, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might well have been discouraged about our country’s present state and future trajectory.
Between soaring levels of inflation, the exploding number of COVID cases, the woefully incomplete fulfillment of King’s dream of interracial understanding, and the continued Republican-led assault on truth and the rule of law, there are plenty of reasons these days to heed the impulse to withdraw from the world and hope that things will magically improve.
But the slain civil rights leader’s response to the staggering array of challenges he encountered during the final year of his life can be a source of inspiration for us. Like many, King grappled with depression through much of his adult life. Yet he also found it within himself to not turn inward, but rather to expand his prophetic vision.
King faced a wide range of attacks during his last year. His April 1967 speech at New York’s Riverside Church denouncing the Vietnam War put him out of favor with the Johnson Administration that had signed landmark civil rights legislation just two years earlier. The years-long surveillance campaign by the FBI began in1963 with The March on Washington and continued until his 1968 murder had exacted a steep emotional price. So, too, did the death threats he experienced on nearly a daily basis beginning with his leadership of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Younger activists in the emerging Black Power Movement derided King’s continued advocacy of nonviolence. Harlem-based Congressman Adam Clayton Powell joined the skeptics, mocking the man he dubbed “Martin Loser King.”
Wrestling with despondency, King drew on his bedrock religious faith to widen his call for justice. In the April 1967 address, he spoke against the injustices in Vietnam with the same compassion he felt for America’s poor: “I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak of the -- for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam.”
While King’s stance drew praise from those in the peace community, many in the civil rights movement distanced themselves from his position, according to Stanford University’s King Institute. Undeterred, King followed his comprehensive address by leading a demonstration with Dr. Benjanim Spock and Harry Belafonte of 10,000 demonstrators on an anti-war march to the United Nations less than than two weeks later, the institute said. King continued to link the issues of racism, poverty and the Vietnam War.
King’s focus on poverty represented a similar expansion. He shifted from addressing racial segregation to tacking fundamental economic inequalities that cut across racial and ethnic lines. The Poor People’s Campaign was a central component of that effort. Announced at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff meeting in late 1967, it planned to bring poor people to Washington, DC to demand that federal officials provide jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children, according to Stanford’s King Institute.
King explained later that the campaign sought “a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” A multi-racial coalition of community leaders pledged themselves to the cause that the Rev. Ralph Abernathy led in the aftermath of King’s assassination.
As opposed to the impassioned rhetorician belting out his dream in the iconic March on Washington speech we often see, the King that emerges at the end of his life is an often beleaguered man who nevertheless responded by broadening his vision.
The current moment calls upon us to do no less.
Rather than observe the latest honoring of a sanitized and elevated version of Dr. King, we can draw on his vulnerable humanity and struggles for strength to resist the pull to retreat and instead find our own reservoirs of courage. And, fortified by his model, to persist in the face of the difficulties we face while following our ideas of a beloved community, peace, and justice wherever they may lead.
*Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University and the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ).