Every year, when MLK day rolls around, it’s always enjoyable to read the retrospectives on this great man. His gripping rhetoric and willingness to speak truth to power obviously inspires across party and ideological lines. Yet, as many progressive historians note, we cannot simply put King in a racial justice box. He died on a trip to Memphis where the goal was economic justice, namely for the sanitation workers on strike in the city. Howard Zinn noted this in an interview in late 2009, only a few months before his death. Zinn said that if Obama were to follow King’s example,
We’re going to take our immense resources, our wealth, we’re going to use it for the benefit of people. Remember, Martin Luther King started a Poor People’s Campaign just before he was assassinated. And if Obama paid attention to the working people of this country, then he would be doing much, much more than he is doing now…
King had a much more fundamental critique of our economic system. And certainly more fundamental than Obama has because a fundamental critique of our economic system would not simply give hundreds of billions of dollars to the bankers and so on, and give a little bit to the people below. A fundamental change in our system would really create a greater equalization of wealth, would I think give us free medical care. Not the kind of half-baked health reforms that are being now debated in Congress…
[people at the top are] willing to let people think about mild reforms and little changes, and incremental changes, but they don’t want people to think that we could actually transform this country into a peaceful country, that we no longer have to be a super military power. They don’t want to think that way because it’s profitable for certain interests in this country to carry on war, to have military bases in 100 countries, to have a $600 billion military budget. That makes a lot of money for certain people. But it leaves the rest of the country behind.
Thinkers like Zinn have been less successful in changing the world because the injustices that currently plague it are less obvious. However, they were evident to King, and they should be evident to anyone who has seen our economy collapse on itself amid rising inequality and low job growth. In King’s Memphis speech, he said,
Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…
That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be.
His words are still gripping, true as they’ve ever been. Who will be the MLK of the working class, the impoverished class, the jobless class? It’s likely that there is no such person. Instead, we’ll have to organize ourselves to make the world as it is into the world as it ought to be.
The mural above was painted by a member of my church and installed this weekend. Here is a link to our senior pastor’s dedication.