Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s contribution to the civil rights movement is widely known. Yet King’s work to bring an end to segregation is but one aspect of the moral legacy he has left. What follows is a brief exploration of some of the marginalized but essential aspects of his moral and intellectual legacy.
Rev. King called on people of conscience to assert “eternal opposition” to not only racism but also poverty and militarism. In his April 4, 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” King daringly levied fierce criticism of a society, he argued, that had begun to value objects over people and resort to warfare in the name of peace.
Critical of U.S. military policies Rev. King described the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He also believed that U.S. budgetary priorities of increasing military spending over social programs to be an indication of America’s moral decline. King said:
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
After more than a decade of serious contemplation, King unwaveringly concluded that no war is worth sacrificing children to. He said, “More and more I have come to the conclusion that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons of war totally rules out the possibilities of war ever serving again as a negative good.”
Virtue of Nonviolence
Rev. King directly assailed those, including American presidents, who proffered words of peace and love while they showered their enemies with bullets and bombs.
Many men cry ‘Peace! Peace!’ but they refuse to do the things that make for peace….One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.
In a speech which shares its name with his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go from Here,” King explained:
through violence you may murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.
Economic Inequality and Human Dignity
In Beyond Vietnam King also addressed economic inequality. He said that America needed to “undergo a radical revolution of values.” Specifically he urged the nation to move from a “thing-oriented society,” valuing “profit motives and property rights” over people, towards a nation who fully honored the value of human life.
King criticized capitalism and communism as extremes that dishonored both the social nature of humanity on the one hand and the individual nature of humanity on the other
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.
In his own day, King said that “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” and seriously questioned claims of private ownership of natural resources.
See my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question, who owns the iron-ore? You begin to ask the question, why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water? …Now don’t think you have me in a bind today, I’m not talking about Communism… My inspiration didn’t come from Karl Marx. My inspiration didn’t come from Engels; my inspiration didn’t come from Trotsky; my inspiration didn’t come from Lenin… Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. The kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of Capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It’s found in a higher synthesis that can combine the truths of both.
King went on to add that “the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
Moral Courage and Social Change
King called on others to develop and assert a courageous conscience. When he was asked about his anti-war stand during the Vietnam War he answered simply: “Vanity asks the question ‘Is it popular?’ Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?'”
“If there had not been a Gandhi in India with all of his noble followers, India would have never been free. If there had not been an Nkrumah and his followers in Ghana, Ghana would still be a British colony. If there had not been abolitionists in America, both Negro and white, we might still stand today in the dungeons of slavery. And then because there have been, in every period, there are always those people in every period of human history who don’t mind getting their necks cut off, who don’t mind being persecuted and discriminated and kicked about, because they know that freedom is never given out, but it comes through the persistent and the continual agitation and revolt on the part of those who are caught in the system. Ghana teaches us that.”
Through his entire life King maintained that social change required moral courage and resilience. On March 25, 1968, ten days before he was assassinated, King spoke to Rabbi Everett Gendler of the importance of resolutely abiding by salient moral principles in the public sphere.
Now, so often the word ‘militant’ is mistaken because most people think of militancy in military terms. But to be militant merely means to be demanding and to be persistent, and in this sense I think the non-violent movement has demonstrated great militancy. It is possible to be militantly nonviolent.
Church and State
In a 1965 interview with Playboy, King was asked how he felt about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision ruling school prayer unconstitutional. In response he said:
I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.
Elsewhere King stated that the church “is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”
Though King’s legacy is often inextricably linked to his faith in God, he was hardly a cheerleader for the broader establishment of organized religion. King vigorously criticized the church for failing to struggle for peace and social and economic justice on behalf of the poor and disempowered. He also chided churches across the United States for having done little to fight segregation and racism.
It is to their everlasting shame that white Christians developed a system of racial segregation within the church and inflicted so many indignities upon its Negro worshippers that they had to organize their own churches.
King also blamed organized religion for its willing support of violent resolutions:
In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.
Moreover, King was critical of those within the church who turned their attention and energies away from the plight of the poor and downtrodden in this life. The day before he was assassinated, King told a group of striking sanitation workers:
It’s alright to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s alright to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis Tennessee.
Directly responding to the criticism of Karl Marx, King acknowledged that it was true that “religion can so easily become a tool of the middle class to keep the proletariant oppressed” and that he would do his best “ to avoid making religion what Marx calls the ‘opiate of the people.’”
Perhaps next only to the public knowledge of King’s status as a champion of civil rights is the knowledge that he was a deeply committed Christian. The lesser known aspects of King’s Christian beliefs is that he rejected biblical literalism. For example, in a November 20, 1960 interview with Ebony magazine, Rev. King said that he did not believe that hell was an actual place.
I do not believe in hell as a place of a literal burning fire. Hell, to me, is a condition of being out of fellowship with God. It is man’s refusal to accept the Grace of God. It is the state in which the individual continues to experience the frustrations, contradictions and agonies of earthly life. Hell is as real as absolute loneliness and isolation (January 1961, Chicago – Jan 1961 issue of Ebony magazine).
Finally, it is worth noting that King did not see a necessarily antagonistic relationship between science and religion. He wrote, “Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism.” In arguing against notions of black racial inferiority King frequently cited current anthropological research that revealed what he called “the falsity of such a notion.” And on more than one occasion, he lauded “the philological-historical criticism of biblical literature,” saying it “has been of immeasurable value and should be defended with religious and scientific passion.”
 Video/Audio of “Beyond Vietnam”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Qf6x9_MLD0&feature=related