Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will always be remembered for his leadership in the crusade for racial equality. And while that plight alone would be worthy of several holidays, the truth is that Dr. King’s calls for justice went well beyond skin color. Those who use MLK Day merely as an opportunity to pat themselves on the back for the racial progress this country has made are missing the larger picture. Yes, we have an African American president, but King’s work is still far from done. To honor King’s legacy today, let’s reflect on some of the less-remembered lessons he shared:
1. Realize That Laws Don’t Always Equal Justice
Time and time again, King saw how a country’s laws could be flat out wrong. He urged others to question the justice in laws and not blindly adhere to them just because the powers that be say it is so. “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all,’” King said in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.
2. Question Capitalism
King spent a lot of time pondering the economic system. He acknowledged that there are no easy answers in his speech “Where Do We Go from Here?”: “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found [in] neither… but in a higher synthesis.” In a letter to his soon-to-be-wife, Coretta Scott, he wrote, “I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive… but like most human system it [fell] victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” With wealth disparity only compounding today, it is still relevant to question capitalism and keeping searching for better solutions.
3. Do Not Affiliate with a Political Party
It’s not fair to say that King disengaged from the political process – he was an avid voter and worked alongside various political leaders when they helped further the pursuit of equality. However, King declined to give his allegiance to either the Democrats or Republicans. “I feel that someone must remain in the position of nonalignment, so that he can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both – not the servant or master of either,” he said. Seeing the faults of both sides, King chose to work both inside and outside of the political system to accomplish progress rather than settling for the lesser of two evils.
4. Vocally Oppose War
Before reading King’s speech “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” I wouldn’t have guessed that the term “military-industrial complex” existed all the way back in 1968. But even during the Vietnam War era, people were well aware of the corporate profiteering was a main motivation in waging war. King pointed out that the U.S. military spent half a million dollars for every Vietnam solider it killed, while only spending $53 on each American living in poverty annually. In addition to pointing out these faulty priorities (which continue today), he warned that playing with nuclear warfare would lead to mutual destruction: “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”
5. Support Unions
Much as unions are still vilified today, the labor movement has always been under attack. In a 1961 speech, King supported the collective power of workers, saying, “History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”
6. Foster Critical Thinking in Our Schools
In his article “The Purpose of Education,” King worried whether the educational system was failing. He wrote, “To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically… To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” Considering that many schools today value instructing what to think rather than how to think, this battle for promoting critical thinking is ongoing.
7. Provide Free/Affordable Access to Health Care
“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane,” King declared in a 1966 speech. He hoped that in revealing the inequalities in treatment options for people of different races, genders and class, the disparities could be overcome. The fact that aiding the sick and dying – without either forcing them into poverty or outright denying care – is still up for debate is nothing short of a tragedy.
8. Commit to Non-Violence
In his essay “The Power of Non-Violence,” King explained the struggle in convincing his allies to resist the urge to fight back against violent oppression. “It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency… This method is nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.” Though turning the other cheek takes restraint, King believed that the side that is seen to suffer for its cause is more easily viewed as righteous. He also knew that violence would not ultimately bring about positive change: “The aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community.”
Although the United States has certainly made major (but hardly complete) strides in overcoming racism since King’s time, most of the other justices he spoke out against are still as problematic as ever – if not more so. Let us commemorate today by remembering that Dr. Martin Luther King would not consider his campaign for change complete – and, therefore, neither should we.
Read more: capitalism, Dr. Martin Luther King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., education, martin luther king day, martin luther king jr., martin-luther-king, mlk, mlk day, non-violence, racial equality, racism, unions, war
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
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