Allow me to begin by saying this is not meant to be a quick read.
I don’t say that as an apology, I say it to cause readers to pause and ask, “How much time am I willing to spend reading an article meant to honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr?”
While I’ve never written such a long piece for Medium, I’d like to believe that readers who typically read my writing will gladly spend the time required to read this piece and that new readers will be curious enough to do likewise.
Understanding the radical aspects of King’s life and “dream”
At 6:05 P.M. on Thursday, 4 April 1968 — one year after delivering the most controversial speech of his life — Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Since his assassination, there have been attempts by many to domesticate and even kill the radical nature of King’s life and “dream.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known for his “I Have a Dream” speech. Most (if not all) publications on King highlight this particular speech.
Most publications also describe King as a civil rights leader working for racial equality “on behalf of black Americans.”
While King worked tirelessly for issues of social justice, people often tend to emphasize his “dreaming” more than his “working.” People also tend to limit his “dreaming” (and his work) to civil rights and racial equality “on behalf of black Americans.”
As an African American intimately familiar with the long history and current realities of racial injustice in America, I consider anti-racism work paramount. My objective here is not to suggest that King’s civil rights and racial equity work on behalf of black Americans were in some way secondary to some more important work.
Racial equity intersected with EVERYTHING that King did. My objective, rather, is to illustrate HOW King connected his civil rights and racial equity work with his quest for social justice for ALL humanity — not just black Americans.
A problem with limiting the concerns and vision of black leaders
Limiting the concerns and vision of black leaders solely to issues of race and racial equity on behalf of black people can often result in making such leaders irrelevant (or not particularly important) to MANY white people.
Some people argue that King and other so-called racial justice advocates are concerned ONLY about racial inequity and the well-being of black people. Some white people assert that while the work black leaders do on behalf of black people is important, it doesn’t benefit or involve them (especially since — according to them — they AREN’T racist).
Some white people even argue that racial justice work on behalf of black people is “divisive” and represents a form of racism (sometimes referred to as “reverse racism”) that harms and disadvantages white people.
A common response to “Black Lives Matter” has been “All Lives Matter” as though the former somehow contradicts the latter.
Most black people assert, “Black Lives Matter” BECAUSE we believe that ALL lives matter. The problem is that many societal systems and structures reveal that black (and brown) lives often matter far less than white lives.
Most Black Lives Matter advocates operate from the conviction that all lives matter. The belief that ALL lives matter motivates Black Lives Matter advocates to work for racial justice and equity on behalf of black people. Black Lives Matter advocacy IS All Lives Matter advocacy. The latter is not possible without the former.
Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t working simply to ensure justice and equity for black Americans only; he was working to ensure justice and equity for ALL people.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a global humanitarian
King often stated, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
King was far more than a civil rights leader working for racial equity on behalf of black Americans. King was a global humanitarian — a citizen of the world — working on behalf of the well-being of all people.
While King’s “I Have a Dream” speech may be his most famous speech, his global humanitarian vision is most clearly articulated in a lesser-known (or at least lesser-celebrated) speech.
On April 4, 1967 (one year to the day before his assassination), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of his most powerful and challenging speeches, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”
In that speech, King emphasized not only the importance and value of ALL human life but also the interrelatedness of all life. King believed this interrelatedness demands of each of us a willingness to advocate on behalf of ALL people.
In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote,
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
I believe it was this conviction that all life is interrelated that caused King to speak out against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
The war in Vietnam started in 1955. America entered the war ten years later. Two years later, King delivered his Beyond Vietnam speech.
King opened his speech by saying, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.”
He went on to say, “A time comes when silence is betrayal… that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
In response to those asking King “WHY” he was speaking out against the war, King said,
…many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
Not only did people in 1967 not understand King’s commitment or calling (nor understand the world in which they lived), 56 years later in 2023, many of us STILL do not fully understand King’s commitment or calling (nor understand the world in which we live).
King believed Black lives matter because he believed All lives matter
Critics of King’s stance on Vietnam wanted to limit King’s work to issues of racial justice on behalf of black Americans. This is why they asked, “Aren’t you hurting the cause of YOUR people?”
King, however, understood “HIS people” to be ALL people. King understood that “all life is interrelated.” King refused to choose between civil rights for African-Americans and peace for the Vietnamese people.
In his speech, King called for a “radical revolution of values” that emphasizes love and justice for all people — especially those marginalized by society. King asserted, “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy….” (such as the ‘Viet Cong’)
Many Americans recite a pledge of allegiance that asserts, “…one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.”
However, when the absence of justice for a particular group of people is challenged and protested, often the response is to suggest that demands for justice for that particular group of people somehow imply a loss of justice for other people.
This is the point King was making when he advocated for justice on behalf of the Vietnamese people and challenged America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. King said,
as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula…. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
America’s rejection of King’s “All Lives Matter”
The backlash from a liberal establishment that had once praised King for his civil rights campaign was swift and sharp. It’s been reported that 168 major US newspapers denounced King the day after his speech.
President Johnson ended his formal relationship with King, and is alleged to have said,
What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me? …We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the war on poverty. What more does he want?
President Johnson wanted to limit King to issues of racial justice on behalf of black Americans.
How dare this black preacher challenge America for its military policies as well as its racial policies. King needed to stick to “civil rights” on behalf of black Americans.
The New York Times lambasted King for linking the war in Vietnam to the struggles of civil rights and poverty alleviation in the United States, saying he was doing a “disservice” to both causes.
The Washington Post said King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.”
King’s critique of American militarism was characterized as an unpatriotic betrayal of his country, even though amid his critique he asserted, “I speak as one who loves America…”
While the widespread liberal backlash revealed a failure to understand King, the Post revealed through its explicit use of the phrase “his people,” an utter failure to understand King’s humanitarian “dream” for ALL people.
When black Americans assert, “Black Lives Matter,” many white Americans respond, “All Lives Matter.” When King claimed that ALL lives (including Vietnamese lives) matter, he was rejected by much of liberal white America and told to limit his focus to civil rights on behalf of black Americans.
Ironically, white America’s response to King’s all lives matter work was to restrict him to black lives matter work (even if they rejected the notion that black lives matter).
Understanding the true meaning of King’s “dream”
As I mentioned previously, Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known for his “I Have a Dream” speech. August 28, 2023, will mark the 60th anniversary of that particular speech.
Probably the most recognizable line from that speech is “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.”
In his speech, King juxtaposed the reality of America against the ideal of America. King’s ideal of America was similar to the ideal of America that the poet Langston Hughes promoted when he referred to America as a “dream” in his poem, “Let America be America Again.”
While Langston Hughes was one of the greatest poets of the Harlem Renaissance, his vision was for the well-being of ALL people — not just black people.
Hughes’ universalist vision greatly influenced King’s universalist vision. In his Beyond Vietnam speech, King connects his “dream” of America to Hughes’ dream by explicitly referring to Langston Hughes’ poem. King declared,
For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, … In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!
While the immediate context for King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was the reality of racial inequities experienced by black Americans, King understood that his dream extended well beyond the racial inequities experienced by black Americans. That is why, despite warnings from other black civil rights advocates not to speak out against the war, King felt compelled to speak out.
King went on to say,
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So, it is that those of us who are yet determined that ‘America will be’ — are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
The fulfillment of King’s “dream” requires more than dreaming
King was committed to working not only toward the “dream” of America — an America where All lives matter — but toward the dream of a world where all lives matter.
King’s “dream” calls for work (not simply dreaming). We can’t simply wish for and dream of a world where all lives matter. We can’t simply say, “All Lives Matter” when our actions clearly that reveal certain lives matter far less than others.
While it is easy to assert, “All Lives Matter”, it’s much harder to work together for the creation of a world where ALL lives matter.
King was willing to take a stand for ALL lives (including Vietnamese lives) when he delivered the most courageous speech of his life, criticizing America’s involvement in the Vietnam war.
Despite the white liberal media backlash to King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King’s criticism of the Vietnam War fit squarely within the context of his “dream” and his life’s work. This is why King asserted in his speech,
I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads directly to this sanctuary tonight.
When King challenged the war and suggested Americans should care about Vietnamese lives, he was being true to his “dream” — a dream many Americans failed (and still fail) to understand. He was also being true to his life’s work.
King was fully aware that his “dream” required hard work. According to King, taking a stand on behalf of ALL lives requires a “radical revolution of values.” Critiquing America’s involvement in Vietnam, King said,
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.
King went on to say,
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.
King’s call for a “revolution of values” stressed global human loyalties over national loyalties. According to King,
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is, in reality, a call for an all-embracing — embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.
This is the work required in order to make King’s “dream” a reality.
The impact of religious belief upon King’s elevation of global human loyalties over national loyalties
King appealed to his Christian identity as a basis for his prioritizing human loyalties over national loyalties. After listing several reasons WHY he felt compelled to speak out against America’s involvement in Vietnam, King stated,
I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I’m speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
And finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions.
King’s Christian theological belief in God’s love for ALL people and God’s commitment to working for the liberation of oppressed and marginalized people is reflective of the tenants of “liberation theology.”
While King appealed to his Christian identity as a basis of his unconditional all-embracing love for humanity, he realized this perspective was not limited to Christianity. When speaking of this unconditional love for all humanity, King declared,
When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate — ultimate reality — is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another, for love is God. And everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. He that loves not knows not God, for God is love…If we love one another, God dwells in us, and [God’s] love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
Reclaiming King’s call for a radical revolution of values
For King, it is an unconditional all-embracing love for humanity that allows for a prioritization of human loyalties over national loyalties.
This sort of prioritization of and commitment to global human (and planetary) loyalties that are “broader and deeper” than nationalism is desperately needed today.
Over the past several years, rising nationalism has been seen everywhere and in everything. From the election of Donald Trump to Brexit, the nationalist policies of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the success of far-right parties in Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, Hungary, and even Sweden suggest that nationalism is on the rise globally.
I’m an African American who has been living in the UK since June 2022. Five months ago, former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, authored a Guardian op-ed entitled, “Nationalism is the ideology of our age. No wonder the world is in crisis.” In his article, Brown asserts,
At the very moment the world needs to work together to address global problems that cannot be resolved without global solutions, it is being pulled apart not just by conflicts but also by a rising protectionism.
He goes on to write,
The win-win economics of mutually beneficial commerce is being replaced by the zero-sum rivalries of ‘I win, you lose’, as movements such as ‘America first’, ‘China first’, ‘India first’ and ‘Russia first’, ‘my tribe first’, threaten to descend into an us versus them geopolitics of ‘my country first and only’.
Brown reminds us that
Almost everywhere inequality is on the rise. Warehouses in Asia, America and Europe have sufficient grain reserves to feed the world, and yet there is no global distribution plan and the World Food Programme struggles with only half the finance it needs to prevent famines.
The world as a whole cannot benefit from this sort of fragmentation — fragmentation where we prioritize what is best for OUR particular national interest rather than what is best for the interest of all.
More than ever, we need a “radical revolution of values.”
As we strive to honor the memory and legacy of the “dream” and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let us do so, not simply by dreaming but by working.
May we commit ourselves to “breaking silence” and promoting a radical revolution of values “that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation” and promotes an all-embracing and unconditional love for all life.
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