On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot by James Earl Ray, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where he was to lead a march of sanitation workers protesting against low wages and poor working conditions. He was only 39 at the time of his death. King was turning his attention to a nationwide campaign to help the poor at the time of his assassination. He had never wavered in his insistence that nonviolence must remain the central tactic of the civil-rights movement, or in his faith that everyone in America would someday attain equal justice.
Every year, millions of Americans pay tribute to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We often forget, however, that King was the object of derision when he was alive. At key moments in his quest for civil rights and world peace, the corporate media treated King with hostility. King’s march for open housing in Chicago, when the civil rights movement entered the North, caused a negative, you’ve-gone-too-far reaction in the Northern press. And King’s stand on peace and international law, especially his support for the self-determination of Third World peoples, caused an outcry and backlash in the predominantly white press.
Today, the media often ignores the range and breadth of King’s teachings. His speeches – on economlc justice, on our potential to end poverty, on the power of organized mass action, his criticism of the hostile media, his opposition to U.S. imperialism (a word he dared to use) – are rarely quoted, much less discussed with understanding. In fact, successors to King who raise the same concerns today are again treated with sneers, and their “ulterior motives” are questioned. A genuine appreciation of King requires respect for the totality of his work and an ongoing commitment to struggle for peace and justice today.
In his prophetic anti-war speech at Riverside Church in 1967 (recorded and filmed for posterity but rarely quoted in today’s press), King emphasized two points: 1) that American militarism would destroy the war on poverty; 2) that American jingoism breeds violence, despair, and contempt for law within the United States.
Most of the world is quite familiar with King’s I Have A Dream speech, or Letter from Birmingham Jail. But a work that is virtually unknown is his The World House essay, which is the last chapter of his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? It is based on his Nobel Peace Prize lecture delivered at the University of Oslo on Dec. 11, 1964.
Ten days before King’s assassination, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, author of the classic study The Prophets, introduced him to an assembly of rabbis: “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.”
During his seminary days, King became acquainted with Mohandas Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent social protest. On a trip to India in 1959, King met with followers of Gandhi. During these discussions, he became more convinced than ever that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.
In The World House essay, King calls all people to transcend tribe, race, class, nation, and religion to embrace the vision of a World House; to eradicate at home and globally the triple evils of racism, poverty, and militarism. King also advocated a new Marshall Plan to eradicate global poverty around the world.
King insisted: “Save the soul of America with the ammunition of love. Non-violence is the answer. Anti social behavior is not the way. Resolve problems without violence. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”
The following excerpts from King’s The World House are well worth reflecting on:
“We have inherited a great world house in which we have to live together-All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors.”
“In one sense the civil rights movement in the United States is a special American phenomenon. But on another and more important level, what is happening in the United States today is a significant part of a world development.”
“The deep rumbling of discontent that we hear today is the thunder of disinherited masses determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands. One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood and sisterhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers and sisters, or together we will be forced to perish as fools.”
“Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. Without spiritual and moral reawakening, we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments.”
“The wealthy nations of the world must promptly initiate a massive, sustained Marshall Plan for Asia, Africa and South America. A genuine program on the part of the wealthy nations to make prosperity a reality for the poor nations will in the final analysis enlarge the prosperity of all.”
“Before it is too late, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war. In a real sense, all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be humanity’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. Man’s inhumanity to man is not only perpetrated by the vitriolic actions of those who are bad. It is also perpetrated by the vitiating inaction of those who are good.”