As the country once again celebrates the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, it is useful for us to re-examine the civil rights leader's philosophy.
He was not just a dreamer. He was a scathing critic of America for failing to live up to its ideals. As he said in a seldom-quoted passage of his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, "America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"
In the last several years of his life, King advocated a radical restructuring of American society. He was an unflinching opponent of racist laws and oppressive policies, and he disobeyed unjust laws in order to bring about positive change. This is a far cry from the one-dimensional caricature that has become King's popular image today.
On Feb. 4, 1968, only two months before his assassination, King gave a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church entitled "The Drum Major Instinct." In it, he condemned racism, economic exploitation and militarism, which he defined as the "triple evils that are interrelated." King understood that in order to eliminate one of these triple evils, it was necessary to eliminate them all.
Civil disobedience had religious significance to King. He reminded his congregation that at one time public opinion had turned against Jesus. The prophet of that day was regarded as a troublemaker and agitator who engaged in civil disobedience and disobeyed injunctions.
Economic justice was a pillar of King's thought. He called for a Bill of Rights of the Disadvantaged, and urged the eradication of poverty for all people, regardless of color. When he was imprisoned in Birmingham Jail for civil disobedience, King recalled a conversation he had with his some of the jail guards: "And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, 'Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You're just as poor as Negroes.' And I said, 'You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people.'"
King believed that America's military exploits overseas were linked to the civil rights struggle at home, and reflected our arrogance as a nation. "God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We've committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world."
And he realized that the war was diverting desperately needed resources from domestic social programs. "This day we are spending $500,000 to kill every Viet Cong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about $500,000 while we spend only $53 a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty."
Decades later, Americans have learned few lessons from King.
Thirty-seven million Americans live below the poverty line, including 13 million children.
Approximately 45 million of us -- or more than 15 percent of the U.S. population -- do not have health insurance.
The devastation in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast brought to light the lingering problems of race and class.
And the nation squanders away its resources on the failed war in Iraq.
On March 31, 1968, King preached his final Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral, four days before his assassination. In the sermon, he noted that "one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution."
We still need to develop these new attitudes and new mental responses. We still need to wake up.
David A. Love is a lawyer and writer based in Philadelphia. He can be reached at email@example.com.