Today our nation rightfully commemorates the heroic life, work, and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For very good reasons, most people associate King with the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in which racial justice was sought for the millions of historically disenfranchised women and men of color who had continued to suffer beyond the juridical end of chattel slavery and Jim Crow.
While indeed progress has been made, it has been slow and partial, for the persistence of systemic racism and white supremacy remains strong. Reactions to the the nation’s first African-American President are just one paradoxical measure of how far we’ve come as a society and how little things have changed. Similarly, the public displays of overt racism, which continue to validate and reveal the systemic variety, that we witnessed by the campaign of the President-Elect and his supporters was both staggering and unprecedented in modern times.
If ever there were a time to pause, reflect, and recommit to action in the fight for racial justice and to combat white supremacy and privilege in this nation, indeed now would be fitting: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
And yet, the thorn in the government’s side that King was on the subject of Civil Rights and Racial Justice notwithstanding, it was his work in the areas of organizing around economic inequality and nonviolence that were especially threatening. And on this day, we would do well to remember his prophetic wisdom about these issues too. For all three are, in many ways, interconnected.
Take this strong statement about the ill of systemic poverty in our nation, a shameful reality that, of course, disproportionately affects people of color. He wrote in 1967,
The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, 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. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.
King was an anti-poverty crusader as much as he was a Civil Rights leader. He understood that it would do no good to be equal in name alone, according to the law, without the opportunities or the potential to exercise those rights.
In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King identified poverty as the “second evil” that plagues the United States and the entire world.
A second evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it projects it’s nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world. Almost two thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist.
For King, Christian nonviolence was an interest and stance dating back for him to the earliest days of his ministry and community organizing. His first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958), he wrote about all the women and men of color “who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.”
King spoke passionately about the sickness of war and violence, which was exemplified in the Vietnam War. In 1967 he wrote:
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 way 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 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.
Again, very early in his work (1958) he outlined six principles for nonviolent action:
SIX PRINCIPLES OF NONVIOLENCE
Fundamental tenets of Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence described in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. The six principles include:
PRINCIPLE ONE: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
PRINCIPLE TWO: Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.
PRINCIPLE THREE: Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.
Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.
PRINCIPLE FOUR: Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.
PRINCIPLE FIVE: Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative.
PRINCIPLE SIX: Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.
The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.
As President Obama recently said in his farewell address to the nation, we have indeed come a long way in the journey toward peace, equality, and justice. And yet, we have so much more work to do.
On this day set aside to commemorate the live, work, and legacy of Dr. King, may we not lose sight of that task which is now ours to incorporate all three of these areas of inequality and injustice into our work as Christian women and men seeking to be instruments of God’s peace as we walk in the footprints of Jesus Christ.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ora pro nobis!