Reviled, Reinvented and Rediscovered


Five decades ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior made a crucial decision to combine the struggle for democratic rights in the United States, with principled opposition to imperial war abroad. King very courageously did so in context of opposing the war on Vietnam.

Many try to cloak themselves in King’s mantle. Some are some outright charlatans who actively oppose what King died defending. But in either case, these opportunists share not one shred of principle among them.

Over the weekend, tanks, artillery, armored vehicles and 4,000 US troops descended on Poland. They are to be deployed over seven East European countries. Around October, another unit will replace them. This is the first, permanent deployment of US troops on Russia’s border since the Cold War. In coming months, NATO plans to deploy four battalions on Russia’s border. And US annual military budget for Eastern Europe is quadrupled to $3.4 billion over last year’s $800 million.

Poor People's Campaign Brochure, Spring 1968
From the last campaign on which MLK worked.

King understood that poverty is very much a civil rights issue. He saw poverty and powerlessness as mutually reinforcing realities. And he saw the need to break the power that they hold over us.

Dr. King’s last planned protest was the Poor People’s Campaign. He was planning this when he was martyred. This excerpt from a prepared leaflet is as relevant now as it was the day King died. It merits careful study by us all.

King saw the obscene levels of military spending in his own day. The base shamelessness of budget plans is made clear in his work.

Today, total military spending is in excess of $905 billion. Soon, it will top 1 trillion. Every year.

There’s more.

Dr. King also addressed extremes of income discrepancy. But in his wildest dreams, Dr. King could not have imagined the extent to which the level of income dependency would rise even in the lifetime of his peers.

On the eve of the Davos Conference, Oxfam reports that 8 people now control as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population. And of those 8 people, 6 are in the US.

There is no gracious way to put it: such levels of militaristic commitment and social inequality are fundamentally incompatible with a free society.

As social misery rises and political conditions degrade, it begs to be asked where today’s church leaders are. Often, they most stridently support such arrangements. They certainly do not stand beside Martin Luther King Jr., even if they claim to respect and honor that legacy to their own advantage.

Some who know King’s legacy revile him. Others would co-opt his legacy for opportunistic ends. The one alternative of integrity is to recover that legacy for our own time. And if we desire to avert war and revolution, we would be most wise to do so — and soon.

If any churches are prepared to go there, few are fundamentalist.