Today, millions of Americans commemorate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King with speeches, service projects, and interfaith prayer events. King’s “I have a dream” speech will be quoted frequently and Americans will remember his fight for racial justice, how far they’ve come on that front, and (not frequently enough) how much work still remains to be done before America becomes a nation in which people are “not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
At the same time, King’s other areas of focus will be largely ignored. Toward the end of his life, King exhibited the courage of soulful leadership by emphasizing the importance of overcoming systemic economic injustice. He also addressed the military industrial complex, and the unnecessary and evil push for war. In addition to the service projects and speeches about King’s dream for racial justice, we would do well to be spurred to action by King’s vision for economic justice and a world at peace, two areas of desperate need.
For example, in King’s day, economic inequality in America was gradually being addressed. From 1945 to 1980, Americans in all income brackets enjoyed increasing prosperity. Now the situation is different. From 1980 to the present, the wealth disparity in America has increased dramatically, with the bottom 90% of the population showing no real growth in income and the upper 1% roughly tripling their income:
The top 1% of Americans now take about a quarter of all income. For people of color, the wealth disparity is even more pronounced. Remembering Dr. King should include working to reverse this economic disparity.
Furthermore, while Dr. King addressed the sin of the Vietnam War and the military industrial complex supporting it, America finds herself still perpetuating these evils, albeit under a different guise. For example the current push in the U.S. toward war with Iran has very little to do with Iran posing a real threat, and much more to do with our need for an enemy and our propensity toward using war as a foreign policy instrument. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We are beating the drums of war and provoking Iran into “firing the first shot.” Remembering Dr. King should also include working to avoid war with Iran, through diplomacy and negotiation.
On MLK Day 2012, let’s lead from our souls, as King did. Let’s honor Dr. King by addressing not merely some, but all of the various areas of his concern. The specters of racism, economic injustice, and war continue to rear their ugly heads among us, and we need to work relentlessly on all fronts. Dr. King would expect no less.