Martin Luther King Jr.’s Message for Us in this Moment

As we celebrate the thirty-sixth Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 18, it’s hard not to wonder how the civil-rights leader would respond to these extraordinary times—the…

As we celebrate the thirty-sixth Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 18, it’s hard not to wonder how the civil-rights leader would respond to these extraordinary times—the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others; the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic; and now the Capitol insurrection, with the potential of further violence.

King was often called on to comment on police brutality. He urged Americans to see the issue as part of a much larger problem. In eulogizing Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose murder by an Alabama state trooper triggered the events leading to the passage of the Voting Rights of Act of 1965, King made the case for our collective responsibility in addressing police brutality.

The United States is not what it could be. But we have the power in this moment to reimagine and work toward a country that’s more consistent with our ideals than our historical practice. 

“A state trooper,” he acknowledged, “pointed the gun, but he did not act alone.” Instead, King argued, Jackson “was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician, from governors on down, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote.”

Recognizing this collective responsibility, King put the focus on addressing deeper societal issues. He knew racial prejudice and economic inequality facilitated the spread of racism sanctioned by discriminatory laws and enforced by police. Police reform is absolutely necessary, but we must also acknowledge, as King did, that it must accompany a comprehensive effort to address housing, education, and overall economic inequality in the United States. 

In King’s final essay, “A Testament of Hope,” published the year after his death, he explained that the “Black revolution” was not solely about  civil rights. It was also about “forcing America to face all of its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism.” The movement, he concluded, “[exposed] the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”


And what about the Capitol insurrection? 

King would likely have drawn a clear connection between this failed insurgency and racial politics. He asked, in a broad sense, why efforts to solve the nation’s division—and its underlying issues of racial and economic inequality—had never been fully pursued.

“Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation that professes itself to be democratic, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich, productive and awesomely powerful?” King asked. “Justice for Black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society..” 

Nevertheless, King concluded on a note of optimism, one that may be more urgent today than at any other time in our recent history. Humanity, he observed, “has the capacity to do right as well as wrong, and history is a path upward, not downward. The past is strewn with the ruins of the empires of tyranny, and each is a monument not merely to man’s blunders but to his capacity to overcome them. This is why I remain an optimist, though I am also a realist, about the barriers before us.”

The United States is not what it could be. But we have the power in this moment to reimagine and work toward a country that’s more consistent with our ideals than our historical practice.  

This must include dealing with the obvious issue of racial inequality, a traditional stumbling block. As long as we believe in the unequal treatment of racial groups, we buy into the notion of two societies. As a result, we will have two Americas, one of which encourages people to act as they did on January 6, when they sought to preserve what is in reality antithetical to U.S. democracy, not to mention their own self interest. 

The one encouraging thing about this moment is the chance to reimagine a new United States of America. We must do so not from an illusory past but from the ashes of unrealized dreams frustrated by division. We need to commit ourselves to address the issues of race and poverty in ways we never have before, drawing inspiration from the civil theology of our founding principles—and not the shadow of the flawed individuals who created them. 

As King observed in his Testament of Hope, “Black Americans have not life, liberty, nor the privilege of pursuing happiness, and millions of poor white Americans are in economic bondage that is scarcely less oppressive.”

Recognizing and embracing not only our shared humanity but also our shared interests in creating opportunity and equality for all can drive forward the work of rebuilding our democracy.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.


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