Last Monday, Martin Luther King holiday, I had the opportunity to listen to two programs that focussed on the last year of MLK, Jr's life, from April 4, 1967, until his assignation a year to the day later in Memphis: a video on MLK.Jr’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech and a NPR special program, “King’s Last March,” that featured his planned Poor Peoples Campaign march on Washington. Listening to these two programs, I kept coming back to his incredible courage during this difficult, discouraging, and often depressing year of his life.
The courage it took to speak out against the Vietnam war alone was deeply moving and remarkable. MLK felt simply compelled to speak out against the Vietnam war because of his commitment to nonviolence and, equally importantly, that he was aware that the war was draining off money required for the crucial social and economic needs of the poor here at home. He knew his opposition to the war would result in severe criticism from those, even his allies, who felt he should not stray from his civil rights agenda. And he knew his criticism of the war would alienate President Johnson, especially when he named the U.S. as the "primary purveyor of violence in the world.” But he courageously spoke out because he felt his conscience compelled him to do so.
And then, rather than succumb to the criticism, despair, depression, and the temptation to quit, MLK, Jr. somehow had the courage to take on an even greater cause than civil rights: demanding that his wealthy nation commit to relieving the pervasive poverty that was crippling the lives and spirit of millions of poor Americans. He called for a massive march and occupation of Washington D.C. until economic justice policies were established. Integrating the lunch counters and providing for voting rights, he said, didn’t cost the U.S. a single penny. Economic justice was going to mean a commitment to spending money - lots of money - on health care, jobs, housing, and education for the poor. Ultimately this demand was probably more threatening than even his criticism of U.S. war. It challenged the very economic structure and privilege of American capitalism. Many believe this was the issue that led ultimately to his assassination on April 4, 1968.
For MLK nonviolence was essentially a courageous effort to address injustice. His conscience demanded nothing less. The injustice of war and the structural violence of deep economic inequality and deprivation in America, especially when our nation was also spending billions of dollars on war, and using a disproportionate number black soldiers, many of whom would return home to discrimination and ghettos of poverty, was an injustice that must be addressed through nonviolent direct action. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is above all a legacy of courage.
I share this reflection on MLK’s courage this evening because I write at the outset of the Trump presidential administration that is committed to policies and practices that must be named as injustices: failure to aggressively address global warming and discrimination against minorities; allowing the wealthy to flourish at the expense and neglect of the poor and our children; and a frightening lack of commitment to achieving international peace. So this is an appeal to myself and others to summon the courage inspired by MLK, and so many others throughout the history of our own nation, and the inspiring lives of courageous adherents of active nonviolence throughout the world.
Today I watched the passionate speeches from the WA DC Women’s March, viewed with awe the numbers of women (and men) - multi-ethnic, pink-hatted, most of whom are young - marching in American cities and across the globe in resistance to the Trump agenda, and marched myself with my local community. I couldn't help thinking this IS what democracy looks like. This is the next generation of leadership. I am encouraged by the prospects that the impositions and injustices of the Trump administration will actually create a surge in courageous activism that will overcome indifference and neglect, not only of the poor, but those in the middle class and all those who feel unseen and unsupported. We will all suffer- poor, middle, and, yes, even the 1% class - if the consequences of global warming, economic collapse, war, and discrimination go unchecked. A courageous, united, relational-based, compelling, nonviolent response is needed, and, in fact, it is now launched. And it will prevail. Blessed be.