Beyond Race: 8 Other Important Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 Favorite. It was originally published on January 21, 2013. Enjoy. 

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.


Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Love This? Never Miss Another Story.


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus8 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown10 months ago

Sorry Eric, it is immateral to me where you have gotten your second hand anti-union bias. The whole "right to work" nonsense is nothing but corporate-based spin (they have been doing it since the 1870s).

When someone is shoveling half-truths that result in economic and social injustice for working people and more of a bonaza for corporations and the rich and allow them a greater opportunity to take advatage of working class people I will call "bullsh*t."

Eric Lees
Eric Lees10 months ago

No corporate spin from me Kevin. My world-view is based on my own experience, stories my friends and co-workers have told me and stories like the one I linked to. I've worked in the manufacturing industry for about 17 years now so my views are based on the real world not some academic viewpoint.

How many factories have you worked in?

So we can agree to disagree but you should at least respect my view and not call it bullsh*t.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown10 months ago

Lol, Eric, yeah sure the old "I had a friend who has a friend who told me" nonsense. Unions are not perfect, but most of the union horror stories are just corporate spin.

Your statement that unions only exist to protect bad workers, is nothing but corporate spin and pure bullsh*t,

What kind of fantasy world do you live in where you think poorly paid workers can just "start a business"? With what, the help of a fairy god mother?

The whole whiny "blame the government" garbage that you and your types loves to expouse is nothing but corporate spin and shows a complete ignorance of both reality and history.

But by all means, continue to argue for social and economic injustice by calling it "freedom." It is, and has always been complete bullsh*t!

Eric Lees
Eric Lees10 months ago

"Oh, by the way, where do you think the "union horror stories" come from? Yep, you guessed it, from the corporate spin rooms."
No, that's a poor assumption on your part. I'm referring to stories I've personally heard from people that had witnessed them first hand. I've worked with many people whom had worked in union shops or did contract work in union shops.

"What "choice" does a worker have? Take the crappy wages offered by corporate America or...nothing, there is no choice."
There is always a choice, people can always attempt to start their own business as many do out of necessity. Yes there are hurdles to overcome in starting a business mostly imposed by government though not by the market.

"Oh, by the way, wages offered by corporations are not determined "by the free market" They are determined by the greed of the corporations."
We have discussed this as well many times Kevin. I've never referred to our economy as a free market. We have a highly regulated and manipulated and taxed market that creates enormous barriers to entry.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown10 months ago

Oh, by the way, wages offered by corporations are not determined "by the free market" They are determined by the greed of the corporations.

In the last 30 years the production of the U.S. worker has increased over 300% but the wages of U.S. workers have remained completely flat (meanwhile the salaries of corporate CEO's and executives have have gone through the roof).

Why is that? Why does the so-called "free market" only depress the wages of working class people, but somehow gives a bonanza to CEO and executives? Do they have different markets? Is there some hidden "rich guy market" and a seperate market for everyone else?

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown10 months ago

The fact of the matter is that the so-called "right to work" laws are nothing but corporate sponsored-union busting.

What "choice" does a worker have? Take the crappy wages offered by corporate America or...nothing, there is no choice.

Unions offer collective bargaining, the workers have a voice and can level the playing field. Closed shops are illegal in the U.S., the only thing a worker can be "forced" to do is pay the small fee for being in an "agency shop."

All that does is address the "free rider" problem, people who take the benefits of union representation and collective bargaining, but refuse to give financial support for the union.

Oh, by the way, where do you think the "union horror stories" come from? Yep, you guessed it, from the corporate spin rooms.

It is just like when McDonald's caused horrible, horrible 3rd degree burns on a elderly woman because their scalding hot coffee was 40 degrees hotter than the industry standards, despite numerorus complaints and injuries. When the poor woman won her lawsuit against McDonald's for her horrible injuries directly caused by the negligence of McDonald', the might corporate lie machine turned it into a "hey, look at the out of control court system" and the idiotic American public bought the corporate lies hook, line, and sinker.

You may say you support the "right to work," unfortunately what you are really supporting is the right of businesses and corporations to abuse their employees and pay them s

Eric Lees
Eric Lees10 months ago

This is one example of why unions are not in the workers best interest:
I have limited experience working in union manufacturing, sure I've heard plenty of 'horror' stories about unions but who hasn't. I have put some automation equipment in union factories. One was faced with a choice either vote to take a pay cut to get inline with a sister plant or vote no and the plant closes down. They voted no, the plant closed and this was in a poor part of Ohio with few alternatives.

Mostly it boils down to keeping bad workers from getting fired or 'encouraging' the good workers to not be so productive as they make everyone else look bad. Unions are great for bad workers or workers that are less productive than the average and they are great for union supporting politicians. They are not very good at actually raising the living standards of those that pay union dues. Economically it's a poor investment for workers.

So yea I'm a little biased against force and pro liberty.

Eric Lees
Eric Lees10 months ago

"Lol, Eric, you mean you support the "right to work" at slave wages, right? Because that is what the so-called "right to work" rhetoric is all about."
No Kevin, you know that's not the case your smart and you know me better than that from past discussions.

I'm pro-choice, I do not think someone should be forced to give part of their pay to someone else. I believe in the voluntary exchange, that is the opposite of slave labor. See the difference? Wages offered by businesses are determined by the market. If you have high unemployment wages are lowered. The way to raise wages is to lower unemployment by attracting business not by taking more from workers through taxes or union dues.

10 months ago

Thanks !!!