We are facing converging global crises — a horrific pandemic, worsening economic inequality both in the United States and globally, climate change and the continuing scourge of systemic racism around the world. What would Martin Luther King Jr. think or advise if he were alive today? What might he say in these days after the Capitol Building was attacked by a primarily white mob that was seeking to usurp the results of a free and fair election and implement an America First agenda through violent force?
To get to these answers, we need to consider one of King’s most important and overlooked pieces of writing, The World House, a chapter in the last book he wrote, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” This chapter was taken largely from the Noble Prize Lecture at the University of Oslo on December 11, 1964. It is one that he pored over for more than a month, as he prepared to use his platform on a global stage to make a call for a radical new world.
The metaphor of the “World House” came to King when he read a newspaper article about a famous novelist who had died. “Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together,'” King wrote. “This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — Black and white, easterner and westerner, gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
King’s writing came with a promise: we could be on the edge of an important philosophical and systemic breakthrough, where the understanding and solidarity of a more connected world leads us to build systems that more effectively satisfy the full human needs of all. It also came with a warning though. If we do not dismantle white supremacy and systemic racism, if we continue to invest in the military at far greater rates than we invest in the poor and other vulnerable people, if we fail to take seriously the wealth gap at home and between the richest nations and our neighbors we will, like so many before us, descend into the “junk heaps” of history, not from external threats but from our own “internal decay.”
Sadly, much of that decay has only worsened in the United States and the response to it requires the continued growth of disciplined nonviolent social movements that continue to push for change without falling into the America First trap. This required in King’s eyes a major shift in our worldview. One of the greatest shortcomings of modernity he saw was the tragic delusion that we are more separate than we are. King believed that a sense of radical interconnectivity must be a cornerstone of movement analysis and social justice. What are the barriers to this sense of solidarity? In the World House he focuses on racism, greed and systematic economic exploitation, as well as nationalism and militaristic ambition, as major forces that continue to push us apart and toward the brink of annihilation.
COVID-19 is a dramatic and painful reminder of how things work when they go awry in the World House. In the World House what affects one can affect all indirectly eventually, but not all people are impacted equally. Under one roof, in the World House, if someone is sick, then you may catch it. If someone is poor, they can be hidden away, banished into the basement with little light or access to that which helps sustain life, but they are still there. In the World House today, the disenfranchised increasingly are aware of what the master bedroom looks like, that those with privilege sit at the dinner table and enjoy the finest food while they are left with so little. Our housemates, “essential workers” as they are called currently, grow the food, serve the coffee and tend to the sick, often with far too little financial support.
When King said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere it was not a moralistic platitude encouraging us to be nice to each other.
There is an unavoidable resentment that comes with that but also a tremendous loss well before any pitchforks are raised or mops set on fire or protests planned. The creativity, the dignity, the safety that comes from sharing a home in a way that allows for us to be fully human together is not possible in this setting. Our relationships in this state of inequality are twisted, stunted, as the privileged in the World House look to barricade themselves and are protected and shielded from many of life’s hardships. This creates a false sense of separation and security, and it reinforces a false superiority.
In this way, America has a long history of social distancing. We have in our society been social distancing from the beginning. When European colonists killed Indigenous people and forced them onto reservations, the government made genocide followed by social distancing (the reservation) an official policy. When white people violently forced Black people into bondage for 400 years this ensured distancing. We cannot remain intimately connected while denying people basic freedoms and enforcing that exploitation through physical, sexual, psychological and spiritual violence.
Today we are at a distance when the gap between the poor and rich increases so dramatically that 90 percent of the wealth is in the hands of 1 percent of the population, when a Black mother has to worry about the fact that, during childbirth, she is five times more likely to die or lose her child than a white mother. We are creating social distance and reinforcing it when we accept schools that are more racially segregated today than when King died.
King was calling for an end to the pain of this kind of social distancing long before COVID-19 shined a light on the destructive impacts of this separation. He offered three main areas to work on.
First, we must work all over the world with “unshakable determination to wipe out the last vestiges of racism.” We have seen this work return to the forefront of global struggles for justice again with the Movement for Black Lives. There has been a global outpouring of support and love for this movement, with people from Palestine to South Korea stepping up to show support. Equally inspiring, Black people around the world have led their own movements in their countries challenging systemic racism.
Second, there needs to be what King called a “global war on poverty” that invests heavily in the education and health of people living in poverty. We need to make sure that people receive a living wage and that the excesses of the richest are curbed so resources can be more equitably distributed. Importantly, he called for large sustained government initiatives like the New Deal and an updated Marshall Plan to build or rebuild the infrastructure in communities impacted by poverty and systemic racism. This could be done from Baltimore and rural West Virginia to Mogadishu — and here too we have seen global movements demanding more equitable distribution of resources and opportunity.
While many are rightly calling for healing, I think King would remind us that healing is forged in the fire of struggling together for justice.
Finally, when King said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere — or that we are tied together in a single garment of destiny — it was not a moralistic platitude encouraging us to be nice to each other. This was a statement about the fundamental nature of our world and what it will take to survive and thrive together.
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” King said. He saw a society that too easily justified the murder of people halfway around the world, not just in his time but for generations. The use of the U.S. military abroad was, to him, part of a legacy of European colonialism that was deeply rooted in racism and white supremacy, with the primary goals not to promote democracy but domination and economic exploitation.
This analysis led to a scathing critique of the Vietnam War, which was even criticized by many of his allies at the time. “Whether we realize it or not our participation in the war in Vietnam is an ominous expression of our lack of sympathy for the oppressed, our paranoid anti-communism, our failure to feel the ache and anguish of the have-nots,” he said. “It reveals our willingness to continue participating in neo-colonialist adventures.”
King knew that a history of racial and economic exploitation and violence influenced the everyday lives of Black people, having stood side by side with Black veterans as police and white hoodlums attacked them and other Black activists across the country. Reminding people of the brutal poverty of America’s ghettos, King on other occasions described these connections as “a system of internal colonialism not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium.” War, then, was just the spectacular projection of that violence to people abroad — and as we see with the militarization of police today, that violence inevitably returns home.
King’s recognition of profound interconnectivity demanded that human security be grounded in the quality of our relationships, the systems we have in place to support people when things get hard, and by creating international frameworks to guarantee equity and human dignity over profit.
We are as deeply polarized as we have ever been in the United States. The Trump presidency was the antithesis of King’s vision, as it sought to build power by stoking white racial anxiety and rage — as well as fear about economic inequality — by pitting people against each other. While many are rightly calling for healing, I think King would remind us that healing is forged in the fire of struggling together for justice. In other words, this can only occur when we engage in truth-telling about these underlying conditions and push for bold systemic changes.
Fortunately, radical interconnectivity also implies new possibilities for movements in terms of building power from the ground up globally — and for pushing for national and international policies that impact systemic change. We still have barely scratched the surface of that power and what is possible when people organize to fight together around the world. While there have been global economic boycotts and strikes for climate action and racial justice, COVID-19 showed us how profound the economic impact of a global shutdown can be even if sustained for just a few short weeks.
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The outpouring for Black Lives Matter is extraordinary, but that broad base will need to continue to expand, if we are to make the bold changes that King called for over 50 years ago, and are still desperately needed today.
What does this kind of work — to advance systemic rather than piecemeal change — look like in practice? In part, it entails finding and supporting those activists who are already building bridges in their work. We can see the power of this kind of cross-pollination in the rich history of Black women organizers, from Harriet Tubman to Ella Baker. It also exists with contemporary activists and peacebuilders such as the Black Lives Matter activists in Ferguson, Missouri, who connected with and formed alliances with other activists around the world, including Palestinians.
In King’s time, this bringing together of the racial justice movement with the antiwar and postcolonial movements — and broad calls for redistribution and workers’ rights — was shaking the foundations of U.S. society when he was assassinated. It is that solidarity that the World House demands of us today. Black Lives Matter and many other visionary social movements are already moving the world in that direction — and this is just the beginning.
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