MLK also fought for poor, peace

January 21, 2002|By Barbara Ransby

CHICAGO - Each January, our nation pauses, quite rightly, to remember the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But how we remember him is as important as the fact that we remember him. Many Americans know very little about the depth of King's convictions and how they evolved over the course of his lifetime.

King had more than the dream of integration he spoke about in his famous 1963 speech. We hear very little about two of his other dreams. One is King's abhorrence of poverty, the other his commitment to peace.

In 1968, King worked with thousands of others to plan a poor people's march and encampment in Washington, in solidarity with the unemployed and homeless. He did not live to see the campaign come to fruition, but he was passionate about its importance.

"The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty," he said.

When King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., he was fighting alongside sanitation workers who were demanding fair treatment, decent wages and safer working conditions. He died as much for the cause of economic justice as for racial equality. For him, the two issues were inescapably intertwined.

It is a sad reality that, more than 30 years after King's death, 31 million Americans still live below the poverty level, according to Census figures.

The other unfinished business on King's agenda in 1968 was peace. His philosophy of nonviolence did not stop at the borders of the United States; it was part of a global vision.

In 1967, he came out strongly against the war in Vietnam, a position that cost him a number of prominent supporters, but one for which he made no apologies.

King criticized U.S. policy, warning that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

In 1963, he offered a more general critique of violence, when, in his book Strength to Love, he wrote, "The chain reaction of evil - hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars - must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation."

And when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he expressed similar sentiments: "Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation."

Because our country is now in the midst of a war, it may be uncomfortable for some people to think of this part of King's legacy. However, if we truly want to honor the memory of the man, then we should not censor his historical voice. We need to listen and reflect even on his words that may be unsettling.

We often talk of King as a dreamer, but more important than his dreams were his actions. King was an advocate for the poor and a soldier for peace.

In our tributes, we can either indulge in selective memory or we can pay homage to him by picking up where he, and many others, left off and fight for a more peaceful, just and egalitarian world.

Barbara Ransby is an assistant professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She can be reached at, or by writing to Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main St., Madison, Wis. 53703. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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