As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and assassination, 50 years ago today, there is much to reflect upon considering the current events, ranging from increased militarism from this administration to gun violence that includes police violence, mass shootings and the protests that have responded and pushed for deep freedom and liberation.
Since the Ferguson uprising, the question of who is violent — and who has the right to wield it — has been on the lips of many officials and police, who often tell protesters they should be more like those from the civil rights era. Yet, as we remember King’s murder, too often we tone down the radical, progressive, and at times depressed man at the heart of a movement that transformed the nation, making him into to a passive angelic figure. The memory of his life, like our own memories — unless meticulously recorded — are fragmentary.
We sacrifice him all over again by turning him over to the conservative, religious and ideological interests invested in watering down his magnificent life. King offered a moral challenge and call to transform American values that instrumentalize humans, and most often black, brown and non-white lives.
King’s dynamic complexity was rooted in his understanding of peace as a condition that necessarily includes justice. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which was addressed to the faith leaders who could not understand his forceful approach, King wrote that peace was not just the “the absence of tension” but also “the presence of justice.” The inauthentic claims of concerns with the methods of the emerging black freedom movement are reflected among the detractors of most social movements, Ferguson and Parkland included.
Most of those in power who critique the methods of change agents often do so because change is not in their economic interests. King’s message challenged the moral heart of the American system by highlighting the three-pronged evils of of racism, militarism and materialism. These are interconnected evils that he saw as constituting the very nature of this society’s ills.
It was not enough to name the United States government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” but to challenge this country in the urgent task of social transformation that might see our society shift from its rampant materialism to a community focused on human dignity. Such a morality is as the center of an instrumental view of people as things to be used.
In his 1958 essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” King wrote about the “danger of the profit motive as the sole basis of an economic system” and said, “capitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity.”
In a speech to staff in 1966, King explained: “There must be a better distribution of wealth.” We get a sense of the threat he posed when we stop to realize that just two years prior to his assassination he dared to say that “America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
Scarcity underlies how Western economic systems interconnect with war and racism. What if abundance was the guiding principle of our values and policy? Since the people in communities like the one I grew up in on the northside of St. Louis — a few miles away from Ferguson — are exploited through crack-era policing and housing policies that reinforce racist worldviews, we are often viewed from a deficit perspective. This perspective understands the world as a place to be policed and fixed as opposed to one filled with people who can deal with their own conflicts if supported with resources they actually need.
King recognized that the United States’ violent approach was not limited to the wars it wages, but the violence of the colonial mentality of occupation and racism in communities of color, which includes economic injustice. We see this in the Center for Investigative Journalism’s recent report on mortgages denied to blacks and Latinos, which examined over 31 million mortgage records in 61 metro areas. It points out how banks under Obama, and now Trump, used the Fair Housing Act to drive gentrification. What should have been a federally-mandated program to help black people buy homes is now being used by most banks — including Chase, Santander and Wells Fargo — to provide loans to whites who in many cases have worse credit and very little cash to put down.
A different report by ProPublica — entitled the “Color of Debt” — describes the likelihood of bill collectors to go after black people as opposed to similarly situated whites and the focus of law enforcement on black communities, instead of white communities that have more drug traffic and crime.
With the public currently deeply engaged in addressing mass school shootings, we have to remember how the response to Columbine was the implementation of “zero tolerance” policies, which disproportionately impacted urban schools that black and Latino students were likely to attend, even though these demographics were far less likely to experience that kind of violence. Instead, those policies contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which has resulted in a higher proportion of black students being suspended and expelled, increasing those students’ chances of incarceration. Black students often face harsher discipline than their white counterparts. Much of that has to do with teacher bias toward black and Latino students.
Studies that demonstrate how little progress African Americans have made — in terms of home ownership, employment and the increase of black incarceration — do little to change the mind of many. Rather than attributing this lack of progress to racial discrimination, a disturbing percentage of white people believe blacks are less intelligent and more criminal, sadly reinforcing a sense of moral superiority that justifies awarding mortgages and employment opportunities to less qualified whites. This should make white people question the very notion of fairness and the sense that they worked hard to get where they are and what they have.
Derrick Bell, Harvard Law professor and founder of critical race theory, critiqued the civil rights movement on the grounds of interest convergence, which suggests that legislation of that era only passed because it aligned with the interests of white elite liberals who were still unwilling to change the economic order.
But the narrow view of King misses how he connected the dots between the triplets of evil, with racist ideologies allowing the lynchings of black folk while encouraging their military service for a society using similar bias to justify murder in the Global South through war or economic policy. King expanded on his evolving perspective clearly in his final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
“The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income,” he wrote. “And yet in a nation which has a gross national product of $750 billion a year, it is morally right to insist that every person have a decent house, an adequate education and enough money to provide basic necessities for one’s family.”
Part of what we fought against in Ferguson was the violence of poverty, its intersection with militarism, and the plain fact that economically-challenged folks make easier targets for the police. I remember standing outside of the courts in New York City waiting on protesters to come out and having a conversation with a clerk who said that it is in the interest of police to arrest protesters and impoverished blacks and Latinos because, “from my perspective, this keeps us in business.”
When the underlying economic model is one of scarcity, there is an expectation of unemployment and poverty, which reinforces the political use of people as instruments to maintain power. The assumption of scarcity makes it easier for us to be indifferent to poverty and violence against economically-challenged people. We are beyond past due for the revolution of values that King called for, so that we cherish “people, not things.”
What if we had a model of abundance?
This movement for black lives and liberation seeks to transform the very nature of how we deal with each other and the way we see each other. We have a choice in how we see the world around us. Can we envision a society that doesn’t profit from the human misery of war and violence, or economic and environmental degradation? Can we envision a new way of relating and (re)structuring society and the way it works?
Instead of spurring economic growth by building prisons, we should build more schools and educate those who commit crimes, because most crime is economic, not racial or moral. We must be creative and grow economically without profiting or allowing human misery and causing oppression of the human family in the Global South. Even our social movements must call people in to decolonize their lives to reduce the suffering of others. A philosophy of abundance — which is how King understood nonviolence — is not only about not using violence, but also about the possibility for creative ways to transform ourselves and our society.
In “Reckonings,” producer Stephanie Lepp explores how people change, asking listeners to examine their own assumptions about how far they can stretch their empathy.
Recent criticisms calling the founder of nonviolent theory a Cold Warrior are way off the mark. To rightly evaluate him, we need to understand the role he chose for himself.
A six-week strike by teachers has bolstered a movement against proposed austerity measures targeting Lebanon’s dangerously underfunded education system.