As we pause to honor Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy of pushing our nation to live up to its highest ideals, it’s easy to sanitize his radical call for economic justice and ignore his prophetic words about war. We prefer King as a safe icon behind history’s glass case. When his words are quoted these days, we rarely hear the righteous anger of a preacher who denounced the Vietnam War and described America as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” We ignore his warnings about the arrogance of American foreign policy. We avoid an honest grappling with his stinging critique of capitalism as a system that permits “necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few.”
At 35, King had already met with presidents, traveled the globe as a hero of nonviolent resistance and become the youngest person awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But in his final hours King traveled to Memphis for a sanitation workers strike, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with forgotten workers who struggled to earn a living picking up trash.
Our nation has made substantial progress since then, but the racism, poverty and militarism that King shined a moral spotlight on in his time persist. The gap between the rich and poor has reached Depression-era standards. African Americans earn less, die earlier and are far more likely to be imprisoned than whites. A memo from the Center for American Progress, The State of Minorities in the New Economy, shows that African Americans and Latinos are falling even further behind during the economic downturn. King recognized that the next frontier of the civil rights movement required addressing the scourge of poverty plaguing the richest nation in the world. His vision for a “Poor People’s Campaign” bringing together a multiracial coalition united in the belief that the moral measure of any society is found in how we treat the least among us was groundbreaking, but it fizzled after his assassination in 1968.
Religious leaders and faith communities have a particular responsibility to take up his call anew. One of King’s most important contributions was his sweeping vision of what it would take to build a just society. Racism, poverty, and militarism were not isolated social ills, he understood, but interrelated evils that required a deeper social transformation to overcome. King knew that building the beloved community required us to make connections and confront the American infatuation with individualism because our fates are tied together in a “single garment of destiny.”
King’s challenge is often hard to hear. But an honest reckoning with his words and actions can inspire us to build a new common-good movement for racial and economic justice today.