Friday, January 14, 2005

Martin Luther King: Liberal Patriot

This next Monday, we'll hear repeatedly excerpts from the last five minutes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. Some conservative talking heads will espouse the theory that Dr. King would have been against affirmative action, playing the sound bite, "I have a dream my four little children will one day be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Broadcasters will show bumpers and station ID's of Dr. King superimposed in front of the American flag, or standing in front of the Lincoln memorial.

Dr. King's patriotism was real, and I am not criticizing showing Dr. King as a great American hero. He was. However, Dr. King was a patriotic, American liberal, and before Monday's media fest I think it's appropriate that we examine exactly what Dr. King's views on America were.

There is absolutely no doubt that Dr. King loved this country. In the middle of some of his most moving speeches, he would recite sections of the Declaration of Independence, stating with reverence the original, stated intent of the Founding Fathers that all men are created equal, with inalienable rights given to them not by the government but by the creator. In the middle of the last section of the "I Have A Dream" speech, Dr. King spontaneously spoke the following verses, hoping that all of Gods children would be able to sing them in unison:

"My country `tis of these, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing
Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!"


But his love of this country was tempered by the knowledge that we don't always hold true to our beliefs. In his sermon, The American Dream, he illustrates this dichotomy:

"Now ever since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this dream in all of its magnificence--to use a big word that the psychiatrists use--America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy, but on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of those principles."


Dr. King had his realization of American schizophrenia early on in life, due to his experience growing up in the segregated South. When he was in his junior at Atlanta's Booker T. Washington High School, King won an oratorical contest sponsored by the black Elks. His speech was on the topic of "The Negro and the Constitution", and he plainly makes his case for ending institutionalized racism and poverty in American society:

"So, with their right hand they raise to high places the great who have dark skins, and with their left, they slap us down to keep us in "our places." "Yes, America you have stripped me of my garments, you have robbed me of my precious endowment.

We cannot have an enlightened democracy with one great group living in ignorance. We cannot have a healthy nation with one tenth of the people ill-nourished, sick, harboring germs of disease which recognize no color lines--obey no Jim Crow laws. We cannot have a nation orderly and sound with one group so ground down and thwarted that it is almost forced into unsocial attitudes and crime. We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flaunt the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule. We cannot come to full prosperity with one great group so ill-delayed that it cannot buy goods. So as we gird ourselves to defend democracy from foreign attack, let us see to it that increasingly at home we give fair play and free opportunity for all people."


King felt that America had a special role to play on the world stage because of its Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence whose words not only recognized the inherent rights in all people, but were drafted specifically to protect those rights against forces - both governmental and private - that wished to abrogate those rights. His love of our country was based in these documents, in what he called "the promise of America". That's why he fought so unrelentingly to end segregation in this country; he felt that the greatest threat to our nation would come from within, from this hypocrisy of our words preaching equality while our actions fell far short of supporting this ideal.

King's ideal of American equality did not stop at race: he was also concerned about the vast economic inequalities in our country. As he stated in his sermon, "Paul's Letter to American Christians", where he envisions the Apostle Paul writing a letter to modern American followers of Christ:

"I understand that you have an economic system in America known as Capitalism. Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous. But Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism. I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity.

The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem. You cannot solve the problem by turning to communism, for communism is based on an ethical relativism and a metaphysical materialism that no Christian can accept. You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe "enough and to spare" for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth."


King didn't flinch when discussing the need for drastic income redistribution in our country. Neither did he veer in his criticism of America's increasing militarism. His indictment of American involvement in an unjust war in Vietnam was unswerving. He stated in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech:

"This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."


As we blog, write letters to the editor and make the occasional call into a radio talk show this week, let us keep the real Dr. King in mind; the Dr. King who was a patriot, a liberal and who lived and breathed the politics of reality. But let us also keep in mind the idealism of Dr. King, so our comments aren't scarred by pessimism in the potential of our country. Let us keep in mind the promise of America that Dr. King so eloquently spoke of in his sermon, "The American Dream":

And I tell you this morning, my friends, the reason we got to solve this problem here in America: Because God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind and the world. (Yes, sir, Make it plain) Never before in the history of the world have so many racial groups and so many national backgrounds assembled together in one nation. And somehow if we can't solve the problem in America the world can't solve the problem, because America is the world in miniature and the world is America writ large. And God set us out with all of the opportunities. (Make it plain) He set us between two great oceans; (Yes, sir) made it possible for us to live with some of the great natural resources of the world. And there he gave us through the minds of our forefathers a great creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (Yes, sir) are created equal."


No amount of nay-saying or cynical manipulation of our countrymen and women can deny us the optimism of this promise of America. Let us remember Dr. King by pledging to work unceasingly to make this promise a reality.

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