Remembering Martin Luther King, Jnr

1. Introduction

In the early evening of April 4, 1968, a shot rang out in Memphis sky that would be heard around the world [1]. The shot was an assassination of a Reverend who had travelled to the city in support of sanitation public works employees, who had been on strike over wages and conditions. The Reverend in question was, of course, Martin Luther King Jnr (often referred to as MLK), a Baptist minister and political activist for civil rights, for peace, and for economic justice. Described as "the conscience of his generation" by President Jimmy Carter [2], the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed just after his assassination. In his lifetime King was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and was a post-humous recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. In 1983 Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into U.S. law as an American federal holiday, which was finally recognised by all U.S. states in 2000.

Fifty years has passed since MLK's death, and almost ninety since his birth. It is opportune to remember this transformative leader, their works, their beliefs, and their hopes and to evaluate them. It is indeed true that people do make history, but they certainly do not choose the conditions [3]. People are not born leaders, but they may indeed develop the traits that provide effective leadership - responsibility, perseverance, innovation, confidence - and that they take account of the contingencies of the day developing a charisma which challenges existing authority and inspires followers, making their lives sublime. For most importantly, a leader must have followers; not everyone wants to be a leader, and behind every leader are their followers and the organisational infrastructure that delegates leadership to them. The footprints in the sands of time [4] that of a great leader are not theirs alone.

It is with this in mind that we can review the life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr, and the organisations that he was part of. We can then look at the role that the Christian religion played in his life, his ideas, and actions. As a practical person we can also review his political views to the dominant ideologies of the day, and especially the strategy of non-violent resistance and the inspiration by Mahatma Gandhi. Finally, before engaging in an evaluation of of MLK as a whole, a look at one of his challenging ideas in economics, an issue which of course the mainstream political establishment is yet to address, as it raises some various serious issues towards capitalist property rights. Whilst capitalism may drag its feet on issues of political equality, it can eventually accept it. It has far greater trouble accepting those ideas which are contrary to its own foundational principles. It is after all, a religion based on moral blame of their poor, rather than moral repentance by the rich [5].

2. Early Days

Martin Luther King Jnr, was born on January 15, 1929 to Reverend Martin Luther King, Snr, and Alberta Williams King. His birth name was actually Michael King, as was his father's, but King Snr changed both his and his son's name a few years afterwards in honour of the Protestant reformer. With an older sister, Christine King Farris, and younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams "A. D." King, he was brought up in a deeply religious family, with his father and grandfather in the Baptist ministry. Although financially secure, his father had come from a tenant farmer background, and the lessons of poverty were never far away in his childhood. His father was a strict disciplinarian and would regularly harshly beat the King boys. Yet, at the same time, he was a community leader, bringing the local church out of its organisational doldrums, and was a bold anti-racism campaigner, leading the NAACP chapter in Atlanta. Suffering from depression throughout his life, King Jnr attempted suicide at the age of 12 after his maternal grandmother died. As a teenager he expressed doubts at the supernatural claims in the Bible, but would enrol in seminary several years later, and like every other African-American he would experience multiple instances of petty racism, both institutional and personal, the latter in particular bringing him great anger and sadness.

Graduating with an arts degree in sociology, and then a divinity degree, he then took up a doctoral degree in systemic theology at Boston
University in 1955; decades later the doctoral degree would be subject to an investigation which in October 1991 concluded that portions of the dissertation had been plagiarised; whether intentional or in error, or part of his style ("our poets steal from Homer" [6]), is subject to debate. During his doctorate he also worked as an assistant minister at Boston's Twelfth Baptist Church and became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. A year prior he married Coretta Scott in 1953, and they would have four children: Yolanda King, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King, and Bernice King. The following year, with E. D. Nixon, King was a leader in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was initiated after Rosa Park was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person, under the "Jim Crow" laws at the time. The boycott ran for over a year, with Dr. King's house being firebombed during the campaign, and ended with a Supreme Court decision that ended racial segregation on Montgomery public buses. These events would be documented in his first book in 1958, "Stride Toward Freedom". It also had one very other important effect - it made MLK the most well-known spokesperson for the US Civil Rights movement.

3. Civil Rights Campaigns

In 1957 King with other civil rights leaders founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which organised the moral authority of black churches to carry out non-violent protests. King would be the leader ofthe SCLC until his death, and the organisation continues to this day. The SCLC organised the Citizenship Schools programme of volunteer teachers, focused on teaching adult literacy, so they could pass voter-registration tests, driver's license exams and so forth. It is also in this period where King had his second short book, "The Measure of a Man", published. His third book, "Strength to Love", would be published in 1963. Both were primarily concerned with the issue of racial segregation with an emancipatory religious perspective. It was a book signing in 1958 that King narrowly escaped his first assassination attempt, stabbed in the chest by a mentally ill woman who thought King was conspiring against her.

In 1961, King and the SCLC became involved in the Albany Movement, which had been initiated by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Movement's immediate objectives was to end racial segregation in Georgia, and in that sense it did not succeed - but it did provide the campaign experience for the subsequent successful Birmingham Campaign of 1963, which had a more limited goal. merchant desegregation in Birmingham, Alabama, a more confrontational approach, and was faced with a more brutal response from local police. King was arrested and jailed, and wrote one of his most famous essays, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", a response from a Alabama clergymen who criticised "outside agitators" and called for use of legal channels to deal with racial matters. King in response wrote "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere .. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." [7]

King and the SCLC were also among the leadership of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which also included the NAACP, the SNCC, the National Urban League, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), among others, including the United Automobile Workers on President Kennedy's prompting. With the demands of ending racial segregation in schools, discrimination in employment, and a $2 minimum wage (equivalent to $16 in 2017), the march attracted more than a quarter of million demonstrators, making it the largest protest in Washington DC's history at that time. It was at this protest where King provided one of his most famous speeches. Departing from prepared text, and prompted by Mahalia Jackson from the crowd, Dr King made the impromptu additions to what is now known as the "I Have A Dream" speech. This was immediately recognised for its importance and is now is widely regarded as one of the greatest speeches in human history. The very phrase itself encapsulated both failure and hope and referred back to the American dream: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal'", and it concluded with a prophetic vision:

".. when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" [8]

In 1964 King and the SCLC joined with the St. Augustine movement (named after the town in Florida), led by Dr. Robert Hayling, which was initiated by school segregation. The protests led by the St. Augustine movement were subject to violent assaults by white pro-segregationists, but it also contributed significantly to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prevented discrimination in federally assisted programs. In December of that year, King and the SCLC worked with the SNCC in Selma, Alabama, on a voter registration drive. A local judge however had issued an injunction that barred any gathering of three or more people affiliated with various civil rights organisations; King defied it by speaking at Brown Chapel on January 2, 1965. When Selma protesters marched to the state capital, Montgomery, the marchers were attacked by state troops and police. In the course of the protests, Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed a state trooper; Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious by police, and a Unitarian Universalist minister, James Reeb, was murdered. With the state governor actively refusing to protect the marchers, Federal troops had to be called in. Soon after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by Congress, prohibiting any state and local government voting laws that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities.

4. Economic Justice and Foreign Affairs

It is at this time we witness a significant break in King's approach. Up to this stage King had concentrated on the primacy of political rights. From 1965 onwards, his interests turned more to economic justice and the peace movement. This started with his involvement in the Chicago Freedom Movement, where the SCLC, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) engaged in a campaign to end de-facto racial segregation caused by poverty in education, employment, and especially housing, where slum were rife. The formation of the campaign group was a direct result of the Watts riots, where six days of rioting had resulted in 34 deaths, almost 3,500 arrests, and the destruction of 268 buildings. As a result of the actions of the Chicago Freedom Movement over a two-year campaign, the Fair Housing Act was introduced in 1968, to ensure equal housing opportunities. It was also inspirational to King's fourth and last book, "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?", published by Beacon Press in 1967, which argued for an end to poverty by the introduction of a universal basic income.

King was also a long-term opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, but avoided the topic for years in preference of civil rights legislation. It was not until 1967 that he came out publically against the war, additionally arguing against the war as a colonialist endeavour designed to enrich "individual capitalists of the West" [9]. Taking up the perspective of opportunity costs, King argued that money spent on the Vietnam war would be better spent on anti-poverty programmes at home. Whilst the previously supportive media railed against him, he continued to argue that the United States should support what he called the "the shirtless and barefoot people" of the developing world, and condemned the US's "alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America" [9]. All this said however, King was not a supporter of communism, criticising its lack of ethical consistency and tendency towards totalitarianism. He argued that "the success of communism ... is due to the failure of democracy" [10], and that through democratic socialism "there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God's children." [11]

The final campaign of his life was the Poor People's Campaign, organised through the SCLC, with support from the National Welfare Rights
Organization and the American Friends Service Committee, which aimed to bring together the call for economic rights from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and sought to fulfil the promise of the failed "War on Poverty" announced by President Johnson in 1964. It included a protest camp at the Washington Mall, and argued for an economic bill of rights (previously suggested by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944) that concentrated on employment, income, and housing needs, with direct lobbying carried out by The Committee of 100. Again combining economic justice with opportunity costs and opposition to the Vietnam war, King argued "We believe the highest patriotism demands the ending of the [Vietnam] war and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty" [12]. Part of the campaign was support for workers in the Memphis sanitation strike; it was here that King was assassinated. The campaign was then taken up by long-term SCLC organiser Ralph Abernathy, however the protest camp in particular proved to be unsustainable and the economic bill of rights, in any form, was not considered.

5. Evaluation

Throughout his public life King was subject to government scrutiny and often an hostile intelligence services. The FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was particularly concerned that the civil rights movement was subject to communist infiltration. Although none could be found, for the rest of his public life the FBI attempted to neutralise his influence through the COINTELPRO program, describing King as "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country" [13] and with the SCLC listed by Hoover as a black nationalist hate group. The FBI attempts to discredit King included claims that he had engaged in a number of extramarital affairs, which indeed may indeed have a kernel of truth at least according to his friends and biographers. One notorious anonymous package from the FBI advocated that King commit suicide, decline his offer of the Nobel Peace Prize, or step out of public life. Throughout his public life King showed no fear of legal punishment; he was arrested and jailed during the Albany Movement, in the Birmingham campaign, arrested in the St. Augustine protests, and arrested and jailed in the Selma protests. As he said "We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was legal" [7].

His concern for what was just, rather than what was legal, tied to a higher moral standard, which he saw as non-violent direct action. It was an approach that he deeply held, combining the Christian principle of agape, or love for all, with the political tactic which he learned from Ghandi. "The non-violent resistors can summarize their message in the following simple terms: we will take direct action against injustice without waiting for other agencies to act. We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices. We will do this peacefully, openly and cheerfully because our aim is to persuade. We adopt the means of non-violence because our end is a community at peace with itself" [14]. Many criticised King for this approach, but it is worth noting he did not fetishise this, but rather held to it a principled preference; he argued that is faced by a genocidal totalitarianism he would have "temporarily given up my pacifism and taken up arms" [15]. Indeed, as a strategy, King was testing the limits a system that was racist, capitalist, and yet allegedly also a democracy against itself. In other circumstances, there would have been a different Martin Luther King.

MLK's public life was, in reality, little more than ten years before his assassination. Yet in that time he was a leading advocate for some of the most significant civil rights reforms that the United States has implemented. He was part of a great transformation that occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century which largely put an end to the formal and institutional racism that had persisted for so long in the history of the species, and one which occasionally we still see lapses into this immaturity. That part of Dr. King's dream has been fulfilled. But the other half, the structural discrimination, the discrimination that arises from impoverishment and from unjust economic relations, is far from being resolved. King recognised this in the last years of his life and hence there was the change in his concern civil rights to economic rights. We may have reached the mountaintop of political rights, but we have not reached the mountaintop of economic rights. "We are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality"; and when that day is reached our remembrance of Martin Luther King Jnr, will be complete, and his dream will be a reality.

Notes and Annotations

[1] Corrected reference to U2, "Pride (In the Name of Love)", in "The Unforgettable Fire", Island Records, 1984 and Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn", FP 1837
[2] Jimmy Carter, "Invisible Wall of Racial Segregation", Los Angeles, CA June 1, 1976
[3] Karl Marx, "18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte", FP 1852
[4] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "A Psalm of Life", FP 1838
[5] Walter Benjamin, "Capitalism as Religion", written 1921
[6] Robert Burton, "The Anatomy of Melancholy", FP 1621
[7] Martin Luther King Jnr, "Letter from Birmingham Jail", 1963
[8] Martin Luther King Jnr, "I Have a Dream", delivered 28 August 1963
[9] Martin Luther King Jnr, "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam", address at Riverside Church, April 30, 1967
[10] Martin Luther King Jnr, "Loving Your Enemies", address at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, 17 November 1957
[11] Martin Luther King Jnr, speech to the Negro American Labor Council, May 1965, quoted in Thomas F. Jackson "From Civil Rights to Human Rights : Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice", p. 230, 2009
[12] Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking of The Poor People's Campaign, 1968.
[13] Jen Christensen, FBI tracked King's every move, CNN, December 29, 2008
[14] Martin Luther King Jnr, "The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness", Address at the Golden Anniversary Conference of the National Urban League, 6 September 1960
[15] Martin Luther King Jnr, "The Other America", address to Grosse Pointe High School, March 14, 1968
[16] Martin Luther King Jnr, Montgomery Bus Boycott speech, at Holt Street Baptist Church, 5 December 1955

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church, Sunday March 4, 2018

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lev.lafayette's picture

An old tape recording of Martin Luther King Jr., played in public Monday for the first time, is a reminder that MLK and JFK shared an era and a cause, but were not close allies on civil rights.