Some thoughts on Martin Luther King and economic justice

Recently I was driving home late at night from a long road trip, flipping around the radio dial. Randomly, I stumbled upon a radio station playing a speech from Dr Martin Luther King. It turned out to be his famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop“, delivered in April of 1968.

This speech is famous in part because it was Dr King’s last public address. He was shot dead the following day in a Memphis, TN motel. Almost prophetically, King wrapped up his speech on the eve of his death with these words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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 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.

I had never heard the famous “Mountaintop” speech and I found it powerful and haunting for the obvious reasons. But a couple of other themes struck me, themes which I think resonated with me in particular as a Baha’i.

The first is that Dr King was acutely aware of the moral sickness which had infected the entire human race — not just Southern Whites or just the United States — and the urgency in healing that disease before it doomed us. Early in the speech he asserts the following (emphasis is mine):

[W]e have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.

I’ve often quoted here on this blog one of my particular favorite passages of Baha’u’llah, in which he warns that the world’s “sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy”. That is a theme which echoes frequently in the words of Baha’u’llah, that only turning to God can cure our human race from this terrible disease, and that there is little time left for us to act.

The other theme that stood out from the speech was that Dr King’s advocacy of economic justice is mostly ignored by us Americans. He is typically glorified for his advocacy for basic civil rights in this country, and justifiably so. But Dr King took strong stands against poverty and income inequality and in favor of dignity for workers, aspects of his life which are mostly ignored when we talk about his legacy. He was a deeply religious man who used Biblical and spiritual imagery often. But Dr King was a pragmatist who understood the importance of alleviating material suffering and injustice. The “Mountaintop” speech was, after all, given in support of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis. He states later in the speech that

It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

This is something that I love, because I also think this theme is deeply Baha’i. What is more deeply spiritual than working to eradicate poverty? Than advocating against runaway income inequality? Than promoting the economic dignity of all people? Those things are deeply spiritual too, because this is a material world, and the only way to express one’s spirituality here on earth is to address the well being of other human beings. That’s at the heart, I think, of Baha’u’llah’s assertion that “results depend upon means”, of His forbidding his followers from a life secluded in prayer, and of His teaching that hard work with the right attitude is a form of worship. Those are things that I think Dr King would have also appreciated, and which we should remember on days like today.

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