AP photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being arrested in 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama for "loitering."
Today we commemorate the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr., who extolled the transformative power of self-sacrifice and love, and led a movement which indelibly contributed to tearing down the walls of legal segregation.
Dr. King’s work called attention to the inherent injustice of racial and economic segregation, discriminatory housing laws and employment practices. His commitment to nonviolence exemplified a form of activism that was devoted to practical goals, while guided by the better angels of human nature.
Over the past few years, American politics has been riddled by mean-spirited partisanship, even bigotry. It seems certain that King would have been dismayed.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is drumming up support by demeaning Latinos, Muslims and women. Video technology has exposed commonplace police brutality directed against African Americans.
King would, undoubtedly, have supported the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality. Racism in the criminal justice system was after all an issue in his own lifetime. King said,
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
King faulted racism and poverty for most social ills. He strongly disbelieved in “blaming the victim.” He disapproved of rioting, but called it “the language of the unheard,” and an act of desperation. He asked that society sympathize with victims, but condemn slums, poverty, and unemployment.
Today, when critics attempt to portray Black Lives Matter activists as “rioters” (though the demonstrations have been largely peaceful), King would have responded that the movement’s critics are avoiding the real issue of systemic injustice.
No doubt King would have decried recent tragic mass shootings and the failure to pass even limited gun control measures in Congress.
Early in his life, before becoming committed to nonviolence, King himself owned a weapon. But he gave it up, as his belief grew in “the value of compassion and nonviolence” that “helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.” Given his belief in conflict resolution and transformational nonviolence, King would have wanted to see America become a society with as few guns as possible.
In his day, King promoted a massive readjustment of national expenditures. He believed that excessive military spending siphoned money from programs at home. He hoped to see “a reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”
King opposed the Vietnam War, and other American military interventions on the grounds that they were fruitless, inhumane, and fiscally wasteful. He said,
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
There can be no doubt that King would have had similar criticisms of foreign wars and military interventions today.
King admonished his own generation that the time to undo racism is now, and he will continue to admonish future generations: “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org