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As today is a federal holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it’s a good time to reflect on what the man stood for and how best to honor his legacy. While many say that they are following in the footsteps of Dr. King, I contend that most of us need to act more — both more often and more radically — if we actually believe in what he fought for.
Contrary to the dominant narrative, there’s more to Dr. King’s non-violence than non-action, and there’s more to his dream than closing your eyes. But with only 33 percent of Americans having a positive view of Dr. King at the time of his death, it’s no surprise that his more extreme views have been whitewashed.
Extreme? Dr. King? Yes, Dr. King was an extremist; an extremist for love.
But don’t take my word for it, hear from Dr. King himself. Seriously, take some time to read his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” I’ll wait.
Beyond accepting the mantle of extremist — an extremist for love and for justice — he argued for much more than merely non-violence and dreaming of change. He knew the people needed to engage in direct action to create tension. Otherwise, real change would never come.
Echoing Frederick Douglass, Dr. King emphasized, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Dr. King advocated direct non-violent action, but is that enough to make him an extremist? While sadly any sort of real action is often considered extreme, it wasn’t just his methodology that was extreme — even if it was much less so than his peers’ methods in the Nation of Islam or the Black Panther Party — but so too were his views.
The Vietnam War is now generally recognized as a failure, not just militarily but morally, and Dr. King recognized the atrocities of this and of other imperialistic wars during that horrific part of our history. Six years before the end of the Vietnam invasion, Dr. King made a passionate plea to his fellow Americans, a plea to end the war in Vietnam.
He rightly saw such wars as “cruel manipulation of the poor,” where “Negro and white boys … kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”
He criticized America for refusing to recognize an independent Vietnam — a Vietnam which declared its independence with language from our own American Declaration of Independence — and instead siding with the French occupiers before becoming the occupiers ourselves.
He recognized that the majority of the damage we inflicted was not on any military enemies, but rather on “women and children and the aged [who] watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops … They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting their mothers.”
Even stronger than acknowledging the atrocities actually being committed, Dr. King loudly proclaimed the deeper truth: “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” He knew that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person oriented society. 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.”
Starting to see some extremism? These anti-capitalistic, pro-people views are not confined to one speech about one unjust war. They are part and parcel of his extremism for love and justice.
During a speech on the “Three Evils of Society,” he proclaimed that “[w]e must also realize that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power. We must further recognize that the ghetto is a domestic colony.”
In a chapter from his 1967 book, he claimed that “[t]he curse of poverty has no justification in our age … [that the] time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
Dr. King understood that the market wouldn’t solve the problem of poverty and injustice. The poor are too poor to fully participate in the market. If a profit cannot be made off of someone, the market doesn’t care about them. The poor are thus left behind in a society who view the market as sacred. He argued that “the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” He knew that “[i]f democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity.”
Beyond any particular injustice, Dr. King recognized the underlying truth that the immoral status quo wasn’t due to just a few powerful bad actors, but to the inactive majority. The complacent. The people who believe themselves exempt from moral responsibility. Or as Dr. King put it from his Birmingham jail cell, “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.”
Dr. King recognized that the biggest impediment towards significant change is the person who recognizes injustice, but is unwilling to act. It is the person “who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” It is the person who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” Dr. King understood the underlying truth, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
So how does this connect to you? To us?
You aren’t a Ku Klux Klanner or some other moral monster actively pursuing injustice (hopefully). But are you actively pursuing justice? Or are you the comfortable moderate, standing more for the status quo rather than fighting for meaningful change?
Dreams aren’t enough. You must act. We must act. While some things might be better than they were for Dr. King, there is significant injustice right here, right now.
The chairs you sit in during class, right here at CU Boulder, are made by prison labor.
Instead of supplying necessary shelter, the city of Boulder lets people experiencing homelessness literally freeze to death on Christmas. Even as I was writing this, our City Council voted against expanding winter shelter for those most in need.
Many of your fellow students have to skip meals because they cannot afford to eat as much as they need.
And yes, white supremacists still are making their presence known right here in Colorado.
You can’t solve everything, but you also can’t sit idly by. As Dr. King famously wrote, “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If you want to truly honor Dr. King and all that he stood for, you cannot merely reject violence, you cannot merely dream.
Dr. King may have been assassinated decades ago, but his words are as true today as they were when he spoke them. We all ought to read his words, think about his words and see how his words can give us guidance on how we ought to act going forward.
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Alex Wolf-Root at Alexander.firstname.lastname@example.org.