“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence”
To some Americans, the observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday is just another day off from work or school, maybe a day to check out the sales. Even those who think they know about King are only familiar with the vaguely anodyne, non-violent version of the civil rights leader that pervades our public space.
But he was so much larger than that.
He was a minister, yes. But his crusade was about what, in Christian theology, is called a “seamless garment” of justice and compassion — you can’t just focus on the threads that are easy or convenient. “Love thy neighbor” sounds nice, until it requires you to assess your own place in oppressing your neighbor, and that’s what King’s moral authority demanded of us. It wasn’t enough to allow black Americans into schools and offices. We had to look at the ripple America created throughout the world, the effect our easy sense of superiority had on our conscience.
King was a critic of American materialism, and the kind of capitalism that fed war instead of children. “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?” he famously said of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins. It was enough to worry then-FBI Director Herbert Hoover, who called him a “communist,” a threat to national security.
His “Mountaintop” speech, given on April 3rd, 1968, was the last speech of his life:
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
His friend Benjamin Hooks talked about King’s own reaction.
“To my surprise, when I got a little closer, I saw tears streaming down his face,” Mr. Hook said in a speech a decade later. “Grown men were sitting there weeping openly because of the power of this man who spoke on that night.”
King pierced the American consciousness in a way few had done, or have done since. Today, we honor his legacy.