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MLK’s Continuing Challenge to America: His Real Legacy

Annual observances of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day tend to focus almost exclusively on the struggle for juridical equality for southern blacks. Since blacks in the south can now vote (with reduced obstacles), serve on juries, use the public libraries, Dr. King’s cause is now portrayed as over, as history, safely consigned to the past. They ignore his broader vision, his sweeping vision of the ongoing need for what he called “a radical revolution in values.”

Each year, I repose this to remind everyone of the broad, continuing challenges he issued to America, challenges that still resonate today, that are indictments of the contemporary status quo in America and the world.

In 1967 he warned, “When machines or computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme nationalism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” That is from his magnificent speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated. All the quotations in this piece are from that speech, which John Lewis and others have called his single best, most substantial speech.

“I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today–my own government.”

“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam.”

“How can they trust us, when now we charge them […] with violence, while we pour every new weapon of death into their land?”

“They must see Americans as strange liberators.” [Said of the Vietnamese but obviously applicable now to Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Somalis, etc.]

[On how war is brutalizing and traumatizing American soldiers]: “we are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know…that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.”

“There is nothing but a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering of our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

“If we do not act now, we shall surely be dragged down that long, dark, and shameful corridor of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

“A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense that on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Not surprisingly, none of these quotes were chosen for the new MLK monument on the Tidal Basin, across from the Jefferson Memorial. A little too much ‘sting’ in them, obviously. But read them again. Who can say he was not a prophet? A prophet for 21st century America as well as for the 20th century. He is a man of the present and the future, not of the past.

A sound recording and the printed text of his 1967 Riverside Church speech can be found at
The entire, detailed exposition of the speech is well worth reading or hearing in its entirety.
I am delighted to see an article by Alyssa Figueroa on Alternet ( today: “What You Can Do to Highlight MLK’s Radical Legacy” It details hundreds of community organizations’ including Black Lives Matter and Reclaim MLK movement’s plans to reassert Dr. King’s true legacy.

mlk, martin luther king, jr., birthday, holiday, memorial, riverside church speech, fierce urgency, politics, america, dream, Vietnam, militarism, racism, greed, nationalism

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