Remembering the Real Martin Luther King


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Today the mail won’t run, the banks are closed and to the relief of students everywhere so are the schools. It’s easy to just add a holiday to the calendar and move on. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 82 yesterday had he not been gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Every year at this time we see King’s image across our television screens. The Washington Mall, the Lincoln Memorial and his famous I have a Dream Speech. Most of us know a few passages by heart. “…that one day my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…” They are great words but are primarily the only ones we ever hear. Politicians be they liberal or conservative love to echo King’s words and his legacy (sort of).

There are other speeches that politicians and the media never roll out from the archives on this day. The speeches you rarely hear are his callings for social and economic justice. King believed that his duty as a minister of the Gospels was also a calling to these causes as well. The plight of the poor whether they be white or black was also tied to the on going struggle for civil rights. He called for a “radical re-evaluation of values” and that America needed to move from a “thing oriented society toward a person oriented society.”

In the last full year of his life he had begun to speak out profoundly against the war in Vietnam. He didn’t call it a mistake or a misjudgment. He intended to “oppose that abominable, evil, unjust war in Vietnam.” On April 4, 1967 (one year to the day before his murder)King stood in the pulpit of the Riverside Church in New York and delivered what is now known as his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. In it he discussed the long history of this country’s involvement in Indochina. He explained how after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu the Geneva Accords set a time table for elections that would certainly have elected Ho Chi Minh President of a unified Vietnam. The United States stopped the elections from taking place, installed a brutal puppet regime and began the long and treacherous course that would ultimately cost the lives of 58,000 Americans as well as many as several million Vietnamese. King said that he couldn’t speak to the young, particularly the more radical “Black Power” militants on the rise about non-violence without speaking out about, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today; my own government.”

Most people have never heard this King. You don’t see him quoted by very many politicians or newspapers. You also are unlikely to read or hear much about the last march on Washington he was planning. The Poor People’s Campaign. This called for a massive march of the poor of all races from all over America to arrive in Washington and camp out (or perhaps Occupy) Washington to demand further action to alleviate poverty. He believed in a “guaranteed income” and was not the moderate he is alleged to have been today. He was, in fact, a radical. President Obama while running in 2008 at least had some understanding of this fact. He was asked by a reporter who he thought King would have supported today, Obama or McCain? He answered, “Neither, he would have been in the street pressuring us all.”

The march proceeded without him after he was killed but wasn’t the event it might have been had he been alive to lead it. King believed that all of these struggles were linked. He believed that the promise of the “Great Society” programs were being “shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam.” He said, “It is estimated that we spend approximately $300,000 for every enemy we kill in Vietnam; while at home in the War on Poverty we spend approximately $53 for every person classified as poor.” Even though he was a Nobel Peace Prize recipient he was dramatically criticized for these comments as stepping out of line (or not staying in his place).

He left the organizing work of the Poor People’s Campaign to travel to Memphis. In Memphis the Sanitation Worker’s (almost all black) were engaged in a strike with the city. The treatment of the workers was very poor as was their pay. Blacks were not allowed in one of the segregated break rooms and while it was raining one day two men ran to the back of one the trucks for shelter. There was a malfunction and they were killed by the compactor. This tragedy further ignited the resolve of the workers. King was asked to lead a march and speak to the workers movement. His closest advisers told him he didn’t have the time. He made the time.

On April 3, 1968 he spoke in a packed church to the movement. His words that night were prophetic. “Like anyone I would like to live a long life, longevity has its place. But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain top. I’ve looked over and I have 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.”

The next morning he was felled by a rifle shot while standing on the balcony of his motel. From the moment of his death his legacy and myth began. Every year we are asked to remember the man and it would be nice if from time to time they would give us a little more about who he was and what he actually believed in.


About Ted Tipton