Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The few people who attend official ceremonies will hear much about non-violence and King's hopes for racial harmony. Orators will describe a peacefully re-ordered society where race is no impediment to success, where the vestiges of Jim Crow, which were ubiquitous in King's life, have peacefully disappeared. This is a vision to which no conscientious person can object, of course, but it's incomplete. In our quest for heroes who don't particularly threaten us, we have constructed a "King," with whom we can all (or nearly all--there are still troglodytes out there who'd like to abolish the holiday) feel comfortable.
The reality is that King was a radical. He questioned the way American society is organized, especially its economic system. This is the King that our contemporary politicians, of both parties, will not be eulogizing today.
A few months before he was murdered, King addressed the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in Atlanta. The compete text is available here and makes for fascinating reading. The title is "Where Do We Go from Here."
Among other things, King challenged the legitimacy of American capitalism. He knew that the poor of this country--of any color--would never be free so long as they were ruthlessly exploited by a system that denied their basic humanity. In a country where wealth and resources remain controlled by a few, justice is not possible: "We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, 'Why are there forty million poor people in America?' And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the oil?' You begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the iron ore?' You begin to ask the question, 'Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?'"
King understood that American capitalism, which, one should never forget, developed with the labor and sweat of African slaves, leads to the dehumanization and exploitation of human beings and to imperialism: "The whole structure must be changed. A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will … make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together." How sadly accurate this analysis of America was. And how sad it is to note how well it fits the Bush-Cheney administration.
Since King died, things have gotten worse. There has been a massive movement of wealth into the hands of an obscenely rich elite. In the last 30 years, as Bob Herbert reminds us in Sunday's New York Times, “The distribution of wages, income and wealth in the United States has become vastly more unequal over the last 30 years. In fact, this country has a more unequal distribution of income than any other advanced country.” To find out what's really going on with respect to the American economy, check out the web site of the Economic Policy Institute.
Martin Luther King would be appalled by the failure of this country--and both political parties--to deal with economic injustice. He knew that a government that serves only the rich promotes injustice and demeans human dignity. Wouldn't it be great if some of today's orators would talk about the real Dr. King?