today in black history

April 14, 2024

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What Would Martin Do?

POSTED: March 31, 2011, 12:00 am

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Remarkably, we are approaching the forty-third anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and we are months away from the dedication of a memorial in his honor on the National Mall in our nation’s capital. When Barack Obama was elected to the presidency in November 2008 there were immediate comparisons in terms of historical impact with the late civil rights leader, and many Black families placed the president-elect’s picture alongside those of Dr. King, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy that grace the walls of many homes. The newly elected president himself tied himself to the King legacy by invoking the slain leader’s appeal to the “urgency of now” in framing the significance of his election.

It is why now is the moment for President Obama to truly demonstrate in deeds, and not words, his philosophical alignment with Dr. King. As the President makes compromises on the 2012 federal budget that will truly harm the poor and working class Americans, and defends the use of military force in Libya, the teachings of Dr. King should serve as a mirror for Barack Obama to reflect upon the choices he has made. While many people misappropriate the words of Dr. King for political advantage, and I am not suggesting this President is guilty of that offense, there is a tendency to ignore the policy-specific guidance that the late civil rights leader provided in his final tome, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? There is no ambiguity in that text, no muddled thoughts; King writes with clarity on the destiny of our nation and forewarns of the consequences if we choose the wrong path.

The Vietnam War bore heavy on Dr. King’s heart at the end of his life as he came to see the global human rights struggle in the context of the challenges facing the poor and disadvantaged in our country. He decision to speak out against the war, against the advice of many of his contemporaries in the civil rights movement and friends, was driven by an abiding faith in the principles of non-violence and the immorality of warfare. This Nobel Peace Prize winner believed that war was not a choice or a solution, but simply the option of men who cared little for humanity. In his last book, King wrote:

“When I see our country today intervening in what is basically a civil war, mutilating hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children with napalm, burning villages and rice fields at random, painting the valleys of that small Asian country red with human blood, leaving broken bodies in countless ditches and sending home half-men, mutilated mentally and physically; when I see the unwillingness of our government to create the atmosphere for a negotiated settlement of this awful conflict by halting bombings in the North and agreeing unequivocally to talk with the Vietcong - and all this in the name of pursuing the goal of peace - I tremble for our world.”

King’s warnings on the destructiveness of war should ring loudly in this President’s ears as our nation has spent over a trillion dollars on conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has already spent a half billion dollars on the military engagement in Libya. Dr. King went on to lament, “If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war. A so-called limited war will leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political turmoil and spiritual disillusionment.”

Guiding the civil rights leader’s belief system was a concern for the “least of these.” He refused to accept that a nation, and world, with such tremendous wealth could not tackle the evil of poverty, and that our failure to do so was simply a lack of political will and indifference to the suffering of others. His relocation to Chicago was meant to demonstrate his newfound understanding that economic inequities were the basis for much human suffering. Similarly, his planned “Poor People’s Campaign” and his supporting Black sanitation workers in Memphis who were demanding equal wages and benefits reflected King’s revised agenda at the time of his death. On this issue, Dr. King declared:

“The time has come for an all-out war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled and feed the unfed. The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these’.”

As the White House makes budget compromises that will only further demoralize the poor and workers, our President needs to reflect on Dr. King’s warning. This is particularly true in regard to Black Americans who stand to be in worse shape at the end of President Obama’s term than at the time of his election. It matters little now how we got there, what we need now is a plan to get us out of this morass. I hope President Obama will turn to the page of Dr. King’s final book, where King wrote, “Economic expansion cannot alone do the job of improving the employment situation of Negroes. It provides the base for improvement but other things must be constructed upon it, especially if the tragic situation of youth is to be solved. In a booming economy Negro youth are afflicted with unemployment as though in economic crisis. They are the explosive outsiders of the American expansion.”

My hope is that in President Obama’s daily reflections, and moments of solitary introspection, he will see the wisdom of Dr. King and seize upon the late leader’s legacy to truly transform America with a sense of the urgency of now.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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