Today the United States celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr., the activist who helped to galvanize and lead the Civil Rights movement, and who was instrumental in the legislative changes that ended legal segregation in the American south. King was a remarkable orator, a proponent of non-violent protest, and an advocate for social justice. In the years before his death, his focus broadened to include the injustices of war and poverty, as well as racial inequality. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and took a stand against both racial and economic disparities in the United States as part of the Poor People’s campaign.
His dream of an egalitarian America is one that is readily apparent in his speech, “Where Do We Go From Here,” delivered at the 1967 meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition. Racialicious has posted the complete transcript, along with the video clip that I include below, but I want to walk through a few of the passages that I find to be particularly important.
In the speech, King acknowledges the many victories that have been achieved through the Civil Rights movement. However, he also turns his attention to the future, and contemplates the action that will have to be taken in order to alleviate all forms of suffering.
The message that he offers is one that is strikingly progressive, one that demands we question our whole society and realize “that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.”
I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you 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?” These are words that must be said.
While King calls for “restructuring the whole American society,” he makes it clear that communism isn’t the solution, nor is violent riot and protest. Instead, he calls for action, for plans to create jobs and to alleviate the suffering of the poor. He calls for the integration of schools, the destruction of the slums and ghettos, and the celebration of diversity. All of this, however, must be tempered by love. Turning to the Bible and invoking Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he reminds his audience,
you may be able to speak with the tongues of men and angels; you may have the eloquence of articulate speech; but if you have not love, it means nothing. Yes, you may have the gift of prophecy; you may have the gift of scientific prediction and understand the behavior of molecules; you may break into the storehouse of nature and bring forth many new insights; yes, you may ascend to the heights of academic achievement so that you have all knowledge; and you may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees; but if you have not love, all of these mean absolutely nothing. You may even give your goods to feed the poor; you may bestow great gifts to charity; and you may tower high in philanthropy; but if you have not love, your charity means nothing… What I’m trying to get you to see this morning is that a man may be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. His generosity may feed his ego, and his piety may feed his pride. So without love, benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.
“Where Do We Go From Here” is not only deeply resonant almost 50 years after its original delivery, but also serves as a poignant reminder that King’s dream has yet to be fully realized. The ghettos and slums that King railed against still stand, and in many cities across the country, informal racial segregation still occurs, both in residential neighborhoods and schools. Institutional racism is still present within our society, with systems of power like the legal system and the educational system working against the interests of the people. The current economic recession has also made plain how deeply class and racial inequalities are intwined together, as we can see in the Center for American Progress’s latest “by-the-numbers” report, which shows that young people and people of color are among the hardest hit.
Quite clearly, there is more work to be done, and yet we have to remember that so many dreams once deemed impossible have come to pass: the ending of slavery, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the election of a black president, and countless other victories that have occurred. Rather than feel daunted by the work that is before us, I take heart in King’s words:
Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
I take heart knowing that there are countless people across the country who are working towards justice in their communities. We cannot underestimate how even the smallest actions can bring change, how we can use our voices — and our words — to stem the tide of inequality and injustice.
I encourage everyone to check out Colorlines’s post, “How to Become a Racial Justice Hero, on MLK Day and All Year Long,” because it contains ways that we can all carry on King’s legacy of social engagement. We can all become “Racial Transformers.” All we need, according to Terry Keleher, is “an open mind, open heart, open arms, and often, an open mouth.”
I leave you all with one of my favorite Civil Rights-era songs, Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” A change can, will, and must come, and we are the ones who are going to create it.