Current Affairs

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We Must Finish the Work of Martin Luther King Jr.

Reading “Where Do We Go From Here,” King’s final statement of his values and vision, helps us to refine our vision of what changes we need and renew our determination to bring them about.

In 1967, the year before his death, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. published Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, a remarkable book that every American ought to make sure to read. (It’s available as an audiobook.) Book reviewers weren’t very generous to it when it came out; the New York Review of Books painted King as a leader who had been “outstripped by his times, overtaken by the events which he may have obliquely helped to pro­duce.” At the time, King wasn’t terribly popular. Radicals disliked his absolutist stance on nonviolence and his soft approach to white liberals, while the liberals were disturbed at King’s denunciation of the Johnson administration over the Vietnam War. 

King’s decision to take a public stand on Vietnam had been, as he put it, “politically unwise but morally wise.” (King had once said: “Vanity asks the question—is it popular? Conscience asks the question—is it right?”) After he gave his famous “Time to Break the Silence” speech condemning the war, the Washington Post said that King had “done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies” and “many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence.” King, they said, had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.” Many of King’s fellow civil rights activists were similarly disappointed. National Urban League Director Whitney Young confronted King, telling him that he was foolishly alienating Lyndon Johnson. King snapped back: “Whitney, what you’re saying may get you a foundation grant, but it won’t get you into the kingdom of truth.” (Young allegedly responded by calling King fat.) King didn’t back down on his antiwar stance. He had seen photos in Ramparts magazine showing a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby, and made a commitment to take on “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” Neither the Washington Post nor the Urban League could change his mind. 

Where Do We Go From Here is a valuable book partly because it is from the portion of his life when King had expanded his focus beyond civil rights, to discuss militarism, colonialism, and capitalism. It’s filled with King’s grand visions for a peaceful and fair future, and is the clearest statement we have of what he saw as his “unfinished work.” It presents a clear challenge to those of us in 2023 to pick up where King left off.

King was, of course, a far more complex and interesting person than the schoolbook caricature of him as a Nice Man Who Just Wanted Everyone To Hold Hands And Stop Thinking About The Color Of People’s Skin. Plenty have tried to appropriate King’s legacy (even the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, which pretended in 2013 that “Dr. King would be proud to see our Global Strike team—comprised of Airmen, civilians and contractors from every race, creed, background and religion—standing side-by-side ensuring the most powerful weapons in the US arsenal remain the credible bedrock of our national defense.”) as part of a feel-good diversity agenda that changes very little (and at worst is “inclusion in the atrocious”). The best way to disabuse yourself of these misrepresentations is to go back and spend some time reading King’s actual work.

PHOTOS: Associated Press

That’s where you find that King was not, despite what conservatives would like to insist, in favor of “color blindness.” In fact, he was what would now be called extremely woke—as in the true meaning of the term, to be attentive to racial and social injustice—and forthrightly condemned white people for their ignorance of Black Americans’ needs and demands. Writing after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, he says that too many white people were okay with giving Black people the things that were easy to provide and required no real sacrifices (like an end to de jure segregation) but walked away or resisted when asked for genuine material equality: “White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination.” King had previously written that “racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle…” He also condemned those who push a “bootstrap philosophy” that fails to acknowledge “the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery 244 years.” In Where Do We Go From Here, King scorns those who dare to place responsibility for the conditions of Black Americans on the supposed patholgies of the Black family: “Whatever pathology may exist in Negro families is far exceeded by this social pathology in the school system that refuses to accept a responsibility that no one else can bear and then scapegoats Negro families for failing to do the job.”  He also refutes those who push the talking point (the same in his day as it is today) that affirmative action is incompatible with equal treatment:

The white liberal must affirm that absolute justice for the Negro simply means, in the Aristotelian sense, that the Negro must have “his due.” There is nothing abstract about this. It is as concrete as having a good job, a good education, a decent house and a share of power. It is, however, important to understand that giving a man his due may often mean giving him special treatment. I am aware of the fact that this has been a troublesome concept for many liberals, since it conflicts with their traditional ideal of equal opportunity and equal treatment of people according to their individual merits. But this is a day which demands new thinking and the reevaluation of old concepts. A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis. 

King observes that “with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough.” His ultimate judgment is harsh: “Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? … White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor. It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro.” (King had been a longtime public critic of white moderates, a criticism most famously made in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”)

But King also links the struggle of Black Americans against exploitation and discrimination to a broad-based struggle for a complete “revolution of values” that will create a world of peace and justice. He explains that once we take seriously the moral principles that led him to crusade against segregation and for voting rights, we must begin to question many other features of our present society, including the economic exploitation of the Global South and the prioritization of profit over human rights: 

A true revolution of value will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. With righteous indignation, it will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs with reduced incomes as a result of automation while the profits of the employers remain intact, and say: “This is not just.” It will look across the oceans and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” 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 was not just an exponent of peace and nonviolence, but a critic of capitalism, describing himself as “much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic” and believing that capitalism had “outlived its usefulness.” Where Do We Go From Here contains some of his clearest criticisms of the American economic system. He says we must “begin the shift from a “thing-oriented society” to a “person-oriented society.” (King was a critic of excessive materialism, which makes it sad and ironic that decades later, his words would be reused in a commercial for Dodge trucks.) King laments that “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people” which means that “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” King does not mince words when he talks about capitalism:

We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small-hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity. The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more I-centered than thou-centered. 

Housing, for instance, “is too important to be left to private enterprise with only minor government effort to shape policy. We need the equivalent of a Medicare for housing.” King calls for a universal basic income, and makes it clear that the level of the UBI should be high, not just barely enough to live on. King calls for an all-out effort to eliminate poverty from the Earth, saying that the presence of poverty in a time of abundance should be morally compared to “the practice of cannibalism.” It is just as “cruel and blind” for some to live in luxury while others have nothing as it was “when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them.” We need, he says, to “civilize ourselves.” America, he said, was in dire need of being “reborn,” not in the Evangelical Christian sense, but in the sense of having a massive shift in the moral values that governed the society. King argued that our lack of a living wage is a disgrace:

There is nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to schoolteachers, social workers and other servants of the public to insure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding our future generations. There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood. 

Where Do We Go From Here poses important challenges that everyone should have to confront head-on. For instance: “Are we more concerned with the size, power and wealth of our society or with creating a more just society?” He argues that we are failing to deploy new technologies in the service of human ends, and that they often make our lives worse rather than better: “You call your thousand material devices ‘labor-saving machinery,’ yet you are forever ‘busy.’ With the multiplying of your machinery you grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous, dissatisfied.” King cautions that we “sign the warrant for our own day of doom” when “scientific power outruns moral power.” 

King marching from Memphis to Jackson, 1966 (AP PHOTO)

King was often accused of being naive or utopian, and there’s plenty of fodder in this book for those who want to see him that way. He talks of world peace, and says we all need to recognize that we live in one giant “world house” where we must get along: “The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.” He talks about loving one another, although King’s definition of love is morally demanding. He’s directly critical of those who just talk about love, like the white people who insist they feel no hate. King writes: “Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all. It is merely a sentimental affection, little more than what one would have for a pet. Love at its best is justice concretized.” Loving someone means working to dismantle the systems that produce their misery: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” King argues that every person has a responsibility to pay attention to the injustices of their time. “Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions,” he writes. But “our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake.” (To be, in other words, woke.

One has to admire King for his intellectual independence. Where Do We Go From Here contains his critique of the “Black Power” slogan, which he is quite sympathetic to, but nevertheless views as “a slogan without a program.” Despite his earlier-cited staunch criticism of white Americans as a group, he still believes that only broad inter-racial coalitions can create change, and cautions that “any program that selects all black candidates simply because they are black and rejects all white candidates simply because they are white is politically unsound and morally unjustifiable.” 

He also gives his response to those who, citing Frantz Fanon, argue for the legitimacy of violence in a struggle by the oppressed against oppressor. King gets where they are coming from, but believes that the power of nonviolent struggle is significantly underestimated. At the end of the day, for King nonviolence was nonnegotiable: “Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. That is what I have found in nonviolence.” 

War is among the foremost of King’s concerns in Where Do We Go From Here. King was writing when the Vietnam War was inflicting a level of horrific suffering that Americans have still not really reckoned with or understood. A major concern of his is that human beings will, rather than harnessing technology to make everyone’s lives better, build more and more sophisticated weapons systems that will turn the Earth into a living Hell. At a time when the nations of the world are renewing their commitment to vast arsenals of destructive weaponry (for “defense,” of course), and the war in Ukraine grows ever-bloodier, it is fitting to conclude with King’s most serious warning: all of us must taken up the challenge of bringing about a world of peace, where people no longer hurt or oppress each other:

President John F. Kennedy said on one occasion, “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminates even the possibility that war may serve any good at all. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war. A so-called limited war will leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suƒfering, political turmoil and spiritual disillusionment. A world war will leave only smoldering ashes as mute testimony of a human race whose folly led inexorably to ultimate death. If modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine. Therefore I suggest that the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict, by no means excluding the relations between nations. It is, after all, nation-states which make war, which have produced the weapons that threaten the survival of mankind and which are both genocidal and suicidal in character. We have ancient habits to deal with, vast structures of power, indescribably complicated problems to solve. But unless we abdicate our humanity altogether and succumb to fear and impotence in the presence of the weapons we have ourselves created, it is as possible and as urgent to put an end to war and violence between nations as it is to put an end to poverty and racial injustice. 

King recognizes that this may sound corny or starry-eyed, but he insists we take it seriously and not laugh. He believed to his core that this seemingly impossible vision, of a world without violence, exploitation, racism, or poverty, could be brought about. The night before his death, he promised us all that while he knew he “would not get there” with us, he had “seen the Promised Land.” King was able to accept his death in part because had faith that those who lived after him would continue to work to realize his dream.

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