‘Where do we go from here?’ — Looking ahead with King historian Clayborne Carson

Clayborne Carson wants us to remember King's bigger vision extended beyond civil rights in the United States to human rights across the globe.

Subscribe to “Nonviolence Radio” on Apple Podcasts, Android or via RSS.

This week’s episode of Nonviolence Radio pays special tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on the 92nd anniversary of his birth. Michael Nagler begins by going over some nonviolence news, covering events in the United States and abroad. He highlights the urgent need to listen, to see each other — whatever our different beliefs — as fellow humans, all of us in need of a sense of belonging to a meaningful world. This is followed by a recording of a speech given by Dr. Clayborne Carson of the MLK Institute at Stanford University in 2017. Dr. Carson turns to the life of Martin Luther. King Jr., recognizing not only the “mountaintop moments” but the valleys he faced and courageously strode through. Dr. Carson calls upon us to remember King’s bigger vision, which embraced not only civil rights in the United States, but human rights across the globe.

Stephanie Van Hook: Welcome everybody to another episode of Nonviolence Radio, where we explore the power of active nonviolence worldwide. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook and my co-host is Michael Nagler. And we’re from the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma California.

Today’s show is going to start off with a bit of commentary about what’s taking place in the world of nonviolence and what’s happening in the United States. It’s an important conversation to have right now. And then because on Jan. 18, the world is celebrating the 92nd birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. We’re going to hear a talk from Dr. Clayborne Carson of the MLK Institute at Stanford. This talk is from 2017, and it’s called, “Where Do We Go From Here? From Chaos to Community” — a very fitting exploration for our times for right now. So, we look forward to sharing that with you later in the show.

Michael: Greetings everyone. This will be a special Nonviolence Report for a very special period of time that we are passing through in this country and the world. I think I’d like to pick out a few items that are happening around the world that illustrate some of the tensions and some of the issues that we have to be dealing with. Of course, it comes down to the recent events in the United States with this unprecedented attack on our Capitol Building and our democracy. And those attacks are not over, the tensions that led to them are far from over.

I want to spend a few minutes with you talking about that before we close the Nonviolence Report for this week, just kind of jumping around because there are some awfully interesting things happening in the world — the most interesting being right here in the United States. But I’m going to start with something that took place in Ecuador. Recently, there was a strike of medical students. This is a quote from one of their spokespeople who said, “There wasn’t really a strategy. It was more of necessity.”

This points to a dilemma that is very, very common today. People do not react to injustices until they are getting kind of flagrant, in their face. Then when they react, all they can do is protest. What we’re trying to do in the nonviolence community constantly is to reach people to encourage them to respond sooner, i.e., by constructive program, and to have a lot more things in their repertoire than a protest.

By the way, the strike was successful in the end. One of the reasons it succeeded is that police used excessive force against the medical students which is kind of shocking. Most of the country was unaware of their demands until that happened, so you had kind of a paradox of repression where the more they repressed, the less power they actually had in the situation.

But it didn’t need to be that way. It was not what we sometimes call “a dilemma action,” where you put your opponent in a corner and they either give you what you want or they don’t, in the latter case they get a lot of pushback.

I’m moving around, as I said, and I’d like to put the spotlight on something that recently happened in Israel because 60 high school students have now agreed to refuse to serve in the military because of the occupation of Palestine. They sent in a refusing letter, and I hope that we appreciate the courage of this act because in Israel, to refuse military service ends up in jail time.

The students said, and I’m quoting, “It is our duty to oppose this destructive reality by uniting our struggles and refusing to serve these violent systems. Chief among them, the military.” That’s from the letter. It goes on to say – and this is a point I want to emphasize also – it goes on to say, “Our refusal to enlist in the military is not an act of turning our backs on Israeli society. On the contrary, our refusal is an act of taking responsibility over our actions and their repercussions.”

This is such a rich event for me because, of course, I was a conscientious objector at one time. I heard this argument all the time, “You are not giving back to society.” And it was through that episode, that time of my life, that I came to realize that the very best part of me that society needs is not my mindless obedience, but my moral witness, my taking of responsibility.

You may remember the famous episodes that took place during the occupation of France in the Le Chambon where thousands of Jewish refugees were sheltered and saved. The people in that little village who did it would often hear at the end of the war, “Oh, you were heroes.” And they would say, “No, not at all. We were [French]. The people who took responsibility.” So, better or worse, mistaken or correct, if you take responsibility for your actions you are making a positive contribution to the whole.

This is a time when Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping has become very significant, especially domestically. But I want to point to one thing that happened in a cross-border intervention. This is Peace Brigades International who are in Columbia and have been for 25 years. Unfortunately, after the signing of the “Peace Accords” violence against human rights workers has escalated. 47 volunteers from PBI — which relatively speaking, is a big team for Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping. Of course, it’s negligible for military — 47 volunteers were on the ground in three critical parts of the country before COVID struck. Now they are quarantined and regrouping. It really does show you what a trifecta of challenges we are facing these days.

One more news item, if I may, and then we’ll go into look at some of the very, very rich resources that are coming available. And that is, again, here in the U.S. and it’s about the rent crisis. There are tens of thousands of people facing eviction in the U.S. and many of them have come together in a rent strike as well as all these other events, interrupting evictions, other tactics, occupying vacant but habitable homes, outdoor encampments, advocacy for legislative relief, including universal guarantee of homes for all. And of course, mutual aid.

According to the Terner Center for Housing Innovation, which is at my alma mater, University of Berkeley, 16.5 million families who rent housing have lost their income as a result of the pandemic. Among other things, this shows us that when people come together against a common difficulty they can often create a kind of community that will stick together after the difficulty is resolved. We certainly hope that this will happen.

We will be able to bring you more about this event. It will take place very soon, Sunday.

We will be reporting on the very interesting situation in Finland which is important because the Nordic countries are often stigmatized as, “Socialist.” As a matter of fact, they are capitalist economies, basically, and doing well by doing good. You know, if you help everybody out, it seems, everybody benefits.

I want to mention that the Gandhi Research Foundation in North Central India is putting on a winter course on peace and nonviolence that will be starting this month on the 22nd. It’ll run through March and it’ll be twice weekly. Our film and a talk by myself will be there.

This coming weekend, out here at Stanford, and of course, online, is Martin Luther King’s birthday. Clay Carson of the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace and Justice Center at Stanford, though he has technically retired now, has pulled together resources from around the country to create a really rich event that is going to go through the four days of the weekend. included is a film festival with some 11 documentaries, mostly focusing on Dr. King. Our documentary, The Third Harmony, will be included along with a ten-minute discussion of the film and its relevance between myself and Dr. Carson.

So, look to Stanford events, Martin Luther King Jr. Center to get the details and find out how to join this very, very rich resource which will be a wonderful tribute to Dr. King.

Let’s turn now to some discussion of the crisis in American democracy. You know, I’ve been around for quite a long time and this is, by far, the greatest, most severe crisis to our democratic system that I’ve ever experienced. I imagine that will be true for just about all of us. Today, the president was impeached for the second time.

The last I saw, Mitch McConnell will refuse to convene the senate to carry out the trial. But nonetheless, that does carry certain repercussions. Every thoughtful person that I’m aware of is recognizing that it’s critically important not to scapegoat that individual. He must be held to account, otherwise the precedent will be disastrous, but if we make a scapegoat of him in the sense that we think that by impeaching him, possibly even giving him some legal punishment for the many crimes that he’s committed, the tendency will be for us to think that we have resolved the situation.

But as a matter of fact, as we know, there are tens of millions of people who have grievances that must be heard. This is sometimes bitter for us to face. Why should we listen to them? Well, we should listen to them for two reasons: because they are our fellow human beings and because on the strategic level, if we don’t listen to them, how will this conflict ever be resolved?

Assuming that we can come out of this situation of the next few weeks and get President Biden inaugurated, we can set ourselves on a saner course. That is, we can get through the violence and turmoil which has been threatened for the inaugural event and around it, and threatened at many, many state capitals around the country.

Get through all of that, we still will need to think, “What was or what were the forces that propel these people into this action?” One of them was the severe degradation of truth and the commitment to truth which has been, I think – and I constantly am mentioning this because I think it’s true — it has been promulgated mainly by advertising.

Advertising in itself seems relatively innocuous and it seems to be pointed only at a particular item or a practice or a service that’s being offered. But its exaggerations get worse and worse, the twisting of the truth, the claiming that you have scientific studies backing you up when all the listeners know perfectly well there are no such studies. All of this has drawn us away from truth.

As Gandhi showed, truth and nonviolence are opposite sides of a coin, or, he even said one time, “A smooth metallic disc which doesn’t even have head and tails.” So, the violence that we saw on January 6th was partly a result of the departure from a truth responsibility, a truth commitment that has been brought about slowly but surely in our culture. And it has to be – that is one of the many things that have to be addressed.

There is a tension that I’m feeling in the community between the desire for some kind of retribution and the perpetual need for restorative practices. Even in restorative justice they make allowances for what Gandhi famously called, “the madman with the sword.” That is, you must in the first instance stop violence from happening, protect people who are being victimized by it. People and, in this case, a democratic system, which Gandhi said not of our system in particular, but of democracy in general, “When properly carried out is the finest thing in the world.” But as he quickly added on many occasions, “You cannot have democracy in the real sense of the word without nonviolence.”

So that’s our dilemma. We have set up a democratic system in terms of voting, but we haven’t backed it up with a nonviolent culture. And without that, our democratic system is crumbling. I’m hoping that people will come to that realization, look very deeply. I’m hoping that a lot of people who are casually committed to the kind of attitude and policy that the outgoing president represents will see now what it leads to. What has happened is it has come to the surface. The bubble has burst and we can see what it contained if we know how to look.

One other element I’d like to mention here: as people who have been studying QAnon and the conspiracy theories have pointed out, one of the grievances that’s driving these people into these delusional positions is a lack of meaning. Even the person who discovered or promoted the idea of a paradigm shift, Thomas Kuhn — he was working in the history of science when he did that — he was quick to point out that there’s no such thing as not having a paradigm. You have to have some kind of framework that tells you how the universe works and what you’re supposed to do in it.

The fact that these people have latched onto such a fantastical and really dangerous nonsense shows that they were coming from a vacuum of meaning. And that’s where I think we here in the progressive community, in the peace community, I think we can provide a framework of meaning. This is what I have been calling, “The New Story,” and that is what our Third Harmony Project really is all about.

Someone once said to GK Chesterton, the Catholic writer, “You know, it’s just a shame. If people don’t believe in God, they won’t have anything to believe in.” And he said, “No, my friend, it’s much worse than that. If people don’t believe in God, they’ll believe in anything.” Well, whether you believe in a personal god or not, whether you’re in a particular religious framework or not, we all need a framework of meaning, a plausible explanation for the world in our experiences. And that’s what we have left a lot of people without.

That, I think, will be our final security, to be able to give people a new framework which is satisfactory, which enables them to find a meaningful role in their life in a constructive community — or as Martin Luther King said, “A loving community to live in.”

Thank you very much, Stephanie and everyone. That is the Nonviolence Report for this week.

Stephanie: You’ve just been listening to Michael Nagler talking about the news and what’s taking place in the world and in the United States right now. Let’s turn now to a talk from Clay Carson from 2017 on the legacy and life of Martin Luther King Jr. and what we can learn from him.

Brent Webb: Good morning, brothers and sisters. I am pleased to welcome you to today’s forum assembly. My name is Brent Webb, and President Worthen has asked me to conduct the forum assembly this morning. We are pleased today to hear from Dr. Clayborne Carson, a professor, historian, and best-selling author. Selected in 1985 by the late Mrs. Coretta Scott King to edit and publish the papers of her late husband, Stanford University historian, Dr. Clayborne Carson, has devoted most of his professional life to the study of Martin Luther King Jr. and the movements he inspired.

In 2005 the King Papers Project became part of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, with Dr. Carson serving as its founding director. Dr. Carson has been a member of Stanford’s Department of History since receiving his doctorate from UCLA in 1975. He has also served as visiting professor or visiting fellow at a number of prestigious universities. Among the many awards and honors Dr. Carson has received, the honorary degree he received in 2007 from Morehouse College had special meaning because it made him part of the community that includes Martin Luther King Jr. and Martin Luther King Sr.

Dr. Carson also served as senior advisor for the award-winning public television series on the civil rights movement, “Eyes on the Prize.” In addition, he has participated in the making of numerous other documentaries, including, “Freedom on My Mind” which was nominated for an Oscar, and a musical play which has been performed around the world. Would you please join me in giving a warm welcome to Dr. Clayborne Carson.


Dr. Carson: Good morning to all of you. It’s a real pleasure to be here. This is one of my favorite places to be because of the natural beauty of Utah. I grew up in New Mexico, so I’m used to the desert and its wonderful pleasures. I recall bringing my family here for — we came together to tour the national parks. Spent three weeks hiking in all of them. And probably spent half that time here in Utah. This is a great place to come back to.

I should mention that Provost Webb’s description of me is a little out of date. I now have four grandchildren, rather than three. Isaac would be all upset to be left out of that.

It’s also, I think, a wonderful time to be talking about Martin Luther King. We’re just past the King holiday. We’re approaching 50 years since his death. I’ve taken as a theme this year, “Where do we go from here?” And it’s taken from the last book that he wrote.

I think of that book as being very instructive because he wrote the book in 1967 after the passage of major civil rights legislation. The book is really a guide to where do we go in that era after the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. What is left undone? I think that what he was trying to tell us is that the job was not complete. Something important did happen in the 20 years after WWII. And it happened around the world.

You had a rights revolution that affected the majority of humanity. At the beginning of that period, most people on earth were not citizens of the place where they happened to live. They were subjects, second or third-class citizens, which means not citizens really at all. Most of them could not vote. Most of them were colonized. In the United States, we called it the Jim Crow system, South Africa, apartheid.

At the end of that period for the first time in history, most people were citizens. That’s a tremendous accomplishment, equivalent to the accomplishment in the 19th century of ending slavery in most parts of the world. Martin Luther King is the great symbol of that movement. But it’s instructive for us to remember that after that he didn’t retire, he didn’t say, “I’ve done it. I’ve achieved my goal.” Instead, he set about trying to achieve things that he wrote about in his book, “Where Do We Go From Here?”

The theme of my remarks is that we haven’t answered his question. We haven’t decided where to go from that point on. Once we have resolved the question and we spent the rest of the century making sure that everyone got the message that you couldn’t be denied citizenship rights because of reasons of racial prejudice or bigotry and all of these other barriers that were preventing people from enjoying their equal rights as citizens.

And that kind of occupied the rest of the century, there are a lot of movements to expand the reach of citizenship rights. But at the end of that process, we’re living in a world which I don’t think very many of us would describe as a just and peaceful world. So perhaps gaining civil rights has made us complacent about something else, which I would call human rights. Because we are secure in our citizenship rights, we no longer give very much thought to the idea that for many people in the world, human rights have become increasingly important, often because they find that the nation-state which has the duty of protecting citizenship rights, is often the worst violator of those citizenship rights. And people ask, what is the recourse then?

I’d like to spend some time looking at Martin Luther King’s life, particularly those last three years after the passage of the voting rights act of 1965. Because to me, those are the most interesting period of his life, those were the most intense period of his life. You can think of Martin Luther King, as we often do, as a person giving the, “I Have a Dream,” speech. Maybe the speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march. I would refer to these as he does at the end of his life in Memphis as those Mountaintop moments. As you’ll recall, he gives a wonderful speech. We call it, “The Mountaintop Speech.” That’s kind of a misnomer, kind of like the way the “I Have a Dream” speech was the part he did not intend to give, was made up on the spot.

If you look at his prepared remarks, for what he was supposed to say in Washington, he was limited to only five minutes. So he wrote a speech, there was no mention of, “I Have a Dream” in it. All of that was extemporaneous when he decided to go over his time limit because of the response of the crowd.

In the same way, in the Mountaintop Speech, he mentions the mountaintop at the end. But the speech is actually, and I invite you to go read it online, it’s actually a review of his life. And he begins it by giving a panorama of history. He speculates about what it would have been like to have lived at all these great periods of the ancient world, the Renaissance, other great periods of history.

And he asks the question — if God gave him the chance to go and live his life in any of those periods, what would he choose? And he said even though the present period, the world is all messed up, violence all around — this is, again, in 1968, the height of the Vietnam war, that seems like the cry for freedom throughout the world is often not being heard — he said in spite of that, “If I just had a few years to live, I would choose to come back and live in that 20-year stretch following WWII.”

And it was because, he said, it’s during that period that we face this question of what are we going to do when people throughout the world are saying, “We want to be free” and that cry can be heard. He mentioned South Africa. He mentioned the cry throughout Africa and Asia and many places in the world, and he asks the question, how do we respond to that?

His answer was one that allowed us to look back at his life. He went back through those mountaintop experiences, and there were really only a few. He lived most of his life in the valleys. Certainly, the great triumph in Montgomery and what we find when even at the mountaintop he understands how close he came to failure. If you go back and read about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, you would find that he didn’t have anything to do with starting it. He just happened to be living in the same place that Rosa Parks was living.

Rosa Parks and Montgomery women organized a boycott to protest the treatment they were receiving on Montgomery buses, passed out 50,000 leaflets, got people to stay off the buses on December 5, 1955. And that afternoon after the boycott was 99 percent successful, they have a meeting and decide we have to have a spokesperson for this movement, especially if it’s going to go on for the second day, and Martin Luther King was unexpectedly selected to lead.

He’d only arrived in Montgomery a year before so there were many other more experienced leaders, E.D. Nixon, Joann Robinson; a number of other people who were probably much more equipped and qualified to lead a bus boycott than Martin Luther King. But there was something that they liked about this new, young 26-year old. He was very articulate, just received his doctorate. And they said, “Why don’t we select him?”

I think perhaps some of them just recognized that whoever led this boycott would probably end up in jail, and it was easier, they figured, for this young guy who had just had his first child. And Martin Luther King was actually somewhat reluctant. He had been asked to lead the local chapter of NAACP and he declined. He said, “Look, I have a baby coming.” He wasn’t prepared yet. But there was something about that moment that said, “Yes, I need to accept this invitation.”

That night he gives a great speech. Makes it up in 10 or 15 minutes. And again, I invite you to go and read it because what he does is something he does on his mountaintop moments. He takes this bus boycott which is, at that point, not even about desegregation of buses; it’s about better treatment under segregation. That’s all they’re asking for.

He gives a speech in which he says, “If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, the Sermon on the Mount is wrong. If we are wrong, the Declaration of Independence is wrong.” In other words, he was taking that modest goal of the movement and linking it to something much larger than that — these transcendent values about justice and equality.

And he said at the end of the speech, “When the history books of the future are written, they’ll have to say there lived great people right here in Montgomery who had the courage to stand up for their rights.” Now, that’s an audacious speech. You have a one-day boycott that’s not even in the newspapers outside Montgomery, and he’s saying when history books of the future are written they’ll write about Montgomery. Go to any U.S. history book today, you will find some mention of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So, he was right about that.

But after that, he went through a period which I would call the valley, the long valley that lasted almost six years where he was not able to move forward as a leader. He gave lots of speeches, became famous. He was on the covers of news magazines, became the best-known black leader, but he was always finding himself behind the curve in terms of the movement. When the students sit-in in 1960, he’s caught by surprise. When the Freedom Rides happened, they asked him to join the Freedom Rides, he declines.

Even after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he says, “People will be expecting me to pull rabbits out of a hat for the rest of my life.” There’s another document I ran across where he says, “What is it like to reach a peak of your life at age of 27? Where do you have to go?” And he found it difficult to — and by the time of the Albany protest in 1962, he was rather depressed about it. Because he goes to jail, gets called into this movement in Albany, Georgia, and he’s jailed along with hundreds of other people, and he comes out with nothing to show for it. No concessions, no gains. News reporters come up to him, “Dr. King, have you failed?”

And he really had to face the reality that maybe he had reached his peak at 27 and there was nothing more to be done. And then his friend Fred Shuttlesworth said, “Come to Birmingham.” He fails in Albany and Shuttlesworth is telling him, “Come to Birmingham.” That’s like saying, “You failed in a small town, now I want you to come to almost the capital of segregation. You were outmaneuvered by this small-town policeman in Albany, now I want you to face up to Bull Connor,” who had a reputation even then. And Birmingham had this reputation of being Bombingham.

Black people who stood up to segregation found that their homes would be bombed, their churches would be bombed. And he makes that crucial decision to come to Birmingham, and almost like what happens in Montgomery — you know, the Montgomery movement succeeded because of forces beyond his control. The Supreme Court intervened and integrated the buses., and it was just at the time he was about ready to give up on the bus boycott.

In Birmingham, he goes to jail again and that’s where he writes, “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” One of the most wonderful documents in American history. Wonderful justification of civil disobedience, but it didn’t win. Rarely does an essay win a struggle.

Most people had never even read it until years later when it became famous and probably assigned in classrooms. So he goes to jail, comes out of jail, no victory. Is this going to be a repeat of what happened at Albany? But then something again kind of miraculous happens. It’s called, “The Children’s Crusade.” The organizers who had worked with him were saying, “We’ve run out of people who are adults. Hundreds of them have gone to jail, the number of people who are willing to stay in jail for a long period of time, we’re just out of them. But we’ve got these high school students. They’re eager to take part in the movement.”

He had to make that difficult decision of what to do. If one of these young people were injured, perhaps killed, he would have to answer for it. And he mulls over the situation and finally decides that in a sense, they’re already in jail within the segregation system. This is a chance for them to do something to better their future. And in early May of 1963, one of the most remarkable movements in American history happens.

Thousands of students flood into the streets, leave school, often without telling their parents. In fact, probably most of them without telling their parents. And they come to 16th Street Baptist Church, smiles on their faces. You can see the films of them singing freedom songs. And what were they there for? To go to jail. With smiles on their faces. And they marched from 16th Street into the downtown area, Bull Connor is waiting with his police, arrest as many as they can. Very quickly the jails in Birmingham fill up.

The second day, more of the same. More and more students. And that’s when you see the pictures of the police dogs and the fire hoses. Have you ever wondered why they used them? There was no other place to put thousands of students, so this was a way of trying to deter them from even going into the downtown area, trying to frighten them off with police dogs, fire hoses. And of course the pictures of those changed momentum, forced the Kennedy administration to intervene, and to begin preparing what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

That’s what led King to become the King that we recognize today. Because think about it. If he had failed in Birmingham, he wouldn’t have been invited to give the “I Have a Dream” speech. There might not have been a march on Washington. He certainly would not have received the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. He would have been a leader who reached his peak at 27 and never really realized his potential after that. But instead, he is given the prominent role of concluding the march, and he has that mountaintop experience, which, like in Montgomery, doesn’t last long.

As you remember, a few weeks later, 16th Street Baptist Church is bombed and four little girls are murdered there. So again, where does he go from there? The next big event is that Selma to Montgomery March. I hope some of you have seen the Selma film, see how tremendous that event. I’ve taken my students there. It’s wonderful to have them cross the Edmund Pettus bridge. I think that’s an experience every young person in this room should have. Go to Selma. I’m going to be there Sunday to commemorate, I go there every year now to commemorate that march. Because symbolically what happened there, it was a march literally to freedom.

On Bloody Sunday in March 1965, 600 people marched across the bridge. They were met on the other side by police and sheriff’s posse, brutally beaten at the foot of the bridge. They retreat back. Martin Luther King who was not there because he was in Atlanta giving his Sunday sermon, rushes back. And as often in his life, he is caught unexpectedly in this movement.

He makes the decision eventually to lead the marchers from Selma to Montgomery, and arrive on steps of the capitol. By this time, Lyndon Johnson has decided to introduce voting rights legislation, which is passed a few months later. And that becomes the last high point in King’s career.

When you go back and look at his Nobel peace prize speech, you will see that by that time he made clear that his agenda had broadened. He might have just retired. He might have just said, “Look, I contributed enough. I’ve been threatened.” By that time he had been stabbed within an inch of his life. His life had been threatened probably more times than you can count. He had been beaten up in public. Rather than doing that, he said, “My goal for the rest of my life is to deal with what I consider the three main problems of the world.”

One of them is familiar, racial oppression. It’s still a fact of life that people are held back because of race and the legacy of race. Even after the passage of civil rights legislation, both King and Lyndon Johnson recognized that if you start at equal points, simply taking down the barrier doesn’t mean that you’re going to get to the finish line at the same time, that the legacy is going to weigh on every generation from that point on unless something special was done. King called for a bill of rights for the disadvantaged. And he called for an all-out worldwide war on poverty. And that became the central focus of his life leading to the Poor People’s Campaign which brought him to Memphis.

From that point on, his goal in life was to try to mobilize people around the issue, not of civil rights, but human rights. Of understanding that civil rights gains were really intended to be the kind of rights that you enjoy as the citizen of a country. But outside those rights are the rights that we refer to in the Declaration of Independence in the United States. If you recall, and I think all Americans should recall Jefferson’s words, at that point there were no citizens of the United States.

So of course he framed the Declaration of Independence in terms of the rights of all people as people, birthrights. And that has been a means by which black leaders from that point to the present, and people of all races have used as means of pointing out the hypocrisy of the United States. Because we’ve always had a very limited notion of who is entitled to citizenship, and who is entitled to full benefits of citizenship.

Those of you who know anything about American history would realize that citizenship was initially limited to white men with property. No one else could vote. It’s been a long struggle to expand that to where it is today, and that struggle was about bringing citizenship rights closer to that ideal that Jefferson hinted at in the Declaration of Independence of human rights. All men are entitled to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. That simply provides a framework. It’s not a delineation of what are human rights.

So what I would suggest is that when we go back and look at Martin Luther King’s question, “Where do we go from here?”, that it’s very possible that gaining citizenship rights has made us very complacent about human rights. We are secure and very happy in our rights as Americans in terms of citizenship because those are the rights that we expect our government to protect.

But there’s a realm of rights which is constantly being evolved in the world. A realm of rights that belongs to people as people. And it’s those rights that serve as a standard for citizenship rights. As we expand — what is our ideal for what rights should be?– that comes when we look at Martin Luther King. It’s very clear that his ideal for what rights should be is not grounded on a piece of paper, it’s not grounded on a constitution, it’s not grounded on law itself. It’s grounded on Christianity, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the prophetic tradition, the notion of justice.

During the last part of his life, he began to see that that needed to be the guidepost in the struggles that would follow the civil rights gains of the 1960s. So when we look at, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, that wonderful book, what we see is King in that valley of doubt. “Can I really accomplish this in my lifetime?” He launches the Poor People’s Campaign. That’s what brings him to Memphis.

He goes there because of a strike of sanitation workers. The last decision he makes in his life is to come to Memphis to speak to these sanitation workers who have gone on strike for a decent wage, the kinds of things not guaranteed by the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. And he finds that this is a truly uphill struggle. You can imagine even today if a leader said, “I’m going to bring people to Washington for an occupied movement, and that occupied movement is to occupy the National Mall until something is done about the issue of poverty.”

You can kind of see why Martin Luther King was not the most popular leader at the end of his life. He was being attacked by many of the people who had once supported him said, “Why are you… why are you doing this?” At that point, I find that my admiration for him increases. Because I see him particularly when he gives sermons during that period, talking about the need for courage, to stand up for what he believes is right and just, even when he is being criticized.

I’d like to end with a sermon that he gives just a few months before his assassination. I think it conveys a part of Martin Luther King that might not be as familiar to you. Keep in mind that at this point, he’s not at all sure that he’ll live long enough to see the promised land that he talks about in his last speech.

He’s speaking to a congregation of people who have known him even as a child of Ebenezer Church in Atlanta. Imagine yourself in that church on a Sunday morning and Martin Luther King comes in, and he’s rather tired, exhausted by the struggle. He’s getting criticized even from black people who are wondering why did this civil rights leader move off into other areas? Like criticising the war, taking on the issue of poverty?

And he speaks from the heart to his congregation. “I say to you this morning that if you’ve never found something so dear and so precious to you, that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity. Or you’re afraid that someone will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, so you refused to take the stand.

“Well, you may go on and live until you are 90 but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice. Don’t ever think that you go by yourself. Go on to jail if necessary, but you never go alone. Take a stand for that which is right, and the world may misunderstand you and criticize you. But you never go alone, for somewhere I read that one with God is a majority. God has a way of transforming a minority into a majority. Walk with him this morning and believe in him and do what is right, and he’ll be with you even until the consummation of the ages.”

Thank you very much.


Stephanie: You’ve been listening to Nonviolence Radio. Thank you so much for tuning in. We want to thank Matt Watrous, Jewelia White, to KWMR, our mother station, to you, our listeners and friends. Until the next time, let’s all take care of one another. Stay safe.

Transcription by Matthew Watrous.

Related Episodes