As we are celebrating the national Martin Luther King holiday today, we are surrounded by images of a sanitized Martin, more and more isolated from the brutality of the racism and militarism of his own era, and less and less relevant to the racism and militarism of our own age.
The militarism of our own age far exceeds that of Martin’s age, with an American Empire alone that continues to spend over 800 billion dollars a year on its military. The struggle over racism persists, compounded through linked processes of sexism, homophobia, able-ism, and more. And as for materialism and poverty, what else can we say but that according to Oxfam we now have 85 individuals who own more wealth than the “bottom” 50% of humanity, more than 3.5 billion human beings?
I tried to resurrect this radical Martin, the prophet Martin, not Martin the sanitized saint, and not the convenient American icon, in a talk that I recently gave about the legacy of the Riverside Martin for us today in this talk.
Video courtesy of DukeDISC via YouTube
And also to aid in that commemoration, here are seven quotes from Martin that are helpful to recall Martin the prophet, Martin the radical activist of love-and-justice:
1) Martin on Capitalism:
“We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity. The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspire men to be more I-centered than thou-centered.”
2) Martin on being called an “Extremist”:
“It disturbed me when I first heard it. But when I began to consider the true meaning of the word, I decided that perhaps I would like to think of myself as an extremist—in the light of the spirit which made Jesus an extremist for love. If it sounds as though I am comparing myself to the Savior, let me remind you that all who honor themselves with the claim of being “Christians” should compare themselves to Jesus. Thus I consider myself an extremist for that brotherhood of man which Paul so nobly expressed: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Love is the only force on earth that can be dispensed or received in an extreme manner, without any qualifications, without any harm to the giver or to the receiver.”
3) On realizing that things do not get better with passage of time—only with struggle and resistance:
“It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation…”
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
5) America as purveyor of violence
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
6) Triple giant of evil: Racism, Material, and Militarism.
“[O]ur nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution…Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken—the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment… When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, an militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
“Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched the 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.”