For decades, ever since Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis, commemorating his birthday anniversary has always been occasion, formally and informally, for reprising his most famous speech given 50 years ago this year, and rightly so. For many of us who are not African American, that was a transformative speech, sending us down a path that we had not previously imagined ourselves going. On the annual commemoration, we also are reintroduced to his quietly powerful 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail. These words deserve the attention they receive.
But we rarely hear about some of his other words. Those words were widely hated when he gave them because they stepped outside the boundaries of the civil rights role that America's powers-that-be had granted to him. They wanted and still want us to forget the full name of the 1963 event where he declared, "I have a dream." It was the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." It wasn't just breaking the color line as important as that was. Dr. King had a broad view of what America was and should be. And he spoke to that vision repeatedly. It can be seen in his labor speeches, like the one he gave to the state convention of the Illinois AFL-CIO on Oct. 7, 1965:
"The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society."
His broad vision can be seen in the speeches about Vietnam he gave on Feb. 25, 1967, at the Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, and the one he delivered on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside
Baptist Church in Manhattan.
These were costly speeches for him. When he said in Los Angeles that “I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America,” he angered many who had hailed his leadership in the civil rights movement, including members of the NAACP who felt he was seeking to merge the antiwar movement with the civil rights movement. Others, including heavyweights in the media, criticized him for going beyond his supposedly acceptable role in American politics. In other words, he was “uppity.” Didn’t know “his place.” How dare this black man speak out against the war? There remain today many who believe people of color have no business engaging in certain conversations.
While the February 1967 speech deals specifically with Vietnam, it is filled with the universal, timeless ideals with which King always framed his words, including these:
Poverty, urban problems and social progress generally are ignored when the guns of war become a national obsession. When it is not our security that is at stake, but questionable and vague commitments to reactionary regimes, values disintegrate into foolish and adolescent slogans.Happy birthday, Dr. King. We miss your voice. May we never lose your clarity of vision and may we ever emulate your fearless willingness to speak out against injustice. Let us never remain silent based on whether what must be said is safe, or expedient, or politic, or popular.
It is estimated that we spend $322,000 for each enemy we kill, while we spend in the so-called war on poverty in America only about $53 for each person classified as "poor. And much of that 53 dollars goes for salaries of people who are not poor. We have escalated the war in Viet Nam and de-escalated the skirmish against poverty. It challenges the imagination to contemplate what lives we could transform if we were to cease killing.