In his last Sunday sermon before he died, Dr. King said this:
It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.
In the final months of his life, Dr. King wasn’t beating around the bush. White Americans, he said, embraced racism as a way of life. One way to honor him half a century after his death is to speak in similarly blunt terms. Racism is not just acceptable among white Americans in 2018, it is often honored. Racism is honored every time someone proudly tells you they support the President.
This reversal of norms against public racism is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when the President of the United States speaks in proto-genocidal language and the American people don’t even realize it. It’s a double-tragedy because it is harmful all by itself while also inflicting wounds by distraction. Many of us (myself very much included) have withdrawn our attention from the ongoing crises of poverty, segregation, incarceration and police brutality. Instead, we focus on the lowest of low-hanging fruit: critiquing the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters.
It’s as if Martin Luther King had spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince white people that, actually, George Wallace really was racist. You almost laugh out loud at the thought of it. Of course he didn’t bother with that. King kept his focus on the bigger picture.
50 years after his death, we’re reluctant to face the man who appeared in the Spring of 1968 as a despised and declining figure. Heckled by black power advocates and hated by white conservatives, King struggled to stay relevant in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The left increasingly saw his program of militant nonviolent activism as irrelevant, while the right looked on it as a profoundly cynical method of extortion.
We honor him now, but 50 years ago most Americans just wanted him to admit defeat and go away. When he died, some white evangelical leaders implied he had only reaped what he sowed.
In our time, American across the political spectrum find their way toward admiration of Dr. King by erasing key parts of his theology and agenda. Much of the left doesn’t want to learn from King about the moral and strategic imperative of nonviolence. To them, King’s Christian activism reeks of respectability politics. The right doesn’t want to learn from King’s radical challenge to the American economy and way of life.
Plenty of people are happy to think of King as a Christian or as a radical. It is harder for us to grasp that there was no or for Dr. King. He was both. Switch the order of the words and you get slightly different connotations—radical Christian, Christian radical—but both connotations work for King.
King’s Christian activism has much to teach us. Among the lessons are these:
The ends don’t justify the means. Your goals don’t make you righteous. Your actions do.
Love is not a sentimental abstraction. It is what enables oppressed people to pursue justice without the struggle devolving into zero-sum score settling.
Formal equality is hollow without economic empowerment.
The purpose of economic empowerment of the poor is not to expand the debt-addled money-worshiping middle class. It is to promote the dignity and worth of every human being. Economic justice for the poor is not possible without a spiritual assault on the lies of materialism. People are more important than things. And people will not have their deepest needs satisfied by things. A materialistic society can try to buy off the poor with charity, but it cannot do justice to the poor because materialism causes us to treat human beings as disposable.
Nonviolence is not merely a tactic. It is a way of life that rebukes everything from the violence of American policing to our obsession with guns to our militaristic foreign policy around the world.
Nonviolence does not mean acceptance of double-standards or treating all violence as equal. King rejected violence, but refused to put all violence in the same category. With black neighborhoods engaged in a series of deadly uprisings in the 1960s, King refused to provide the condemnation the white media craved. The violent selfishness of the oppressor is of a different kind and magnitude than the violent groans of the oppressed. King kept the focus where it belonged and rebuked the real purveyors of violence.
Nonviolence does not mean passivity or accepting the premises of your opponent. King bluntly called most white Americans “racist” and “sick.” They saw this as deeply unfair and mean-spirited. But if you limit yourself to discourse within the boundaries of the oppressor’s epistemology you can’t be truthful.
With these lessons in mind we can begin to see why at the end of his life King was talking about the need to fight the interrelated problems of racism, materialism, and militarism. All three are dehumanizing forces. All three are alive and well today. 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we have so much work to do.