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Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

Today we will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Once again we will be treated to a rehash of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. We will hear oft-quoted passages, including: “I have a dream that 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.”

King was a prophet who foresaw his own death five years later. As with many a prophet, those in power today cherry-pick such quotes that do not threaten their self-serving agenda for a wishful, gullible citizenry. Just as we seldom hear in Christian sermons Jesus’ overthrowing the tables of the money-changers in the temple, so every January we are treated to a steady stream of a sanitized MLK, not the indignant, populist preacher he became.

Why do we not hear the words of King in Selma in March of 1965 when he called out the Southern aristocracy for engineering a segregated society to keep their wealthy interests safe from a populist movement that had united poor whites and blacks during Reconstruction: “Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.”

Why do we not hear the words of King in Memphis on April 3, 1968, where he supported the striking sanitation workers: “Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be. And force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out.” (King was, not coincidentally in my opinion, assassinated the next day.)

Why do we not hear the words of King at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967:

“A few years ago there was a shining moment in that (civil rights) struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

And later in that speech:

“ this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies . Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

If we feel compelled to myopically focus on King as simply an anti-racist, then the least we can do is expose racism as an invention designed to sustain wealth/class disparity. If we truly want to honor this extraordinary American, however, we must not only pay tribute to his prescient insight into the connection between the evils of poverty, racism and militarism. We must each challenge our individual complicity in supporting our own systemic servitude.

Andy Seles lives in Ashland.