What might Martin Luther King Jr. have said of the demonstrations in Washington two weeks ago?
This is a question worth exploring because King’s legacy was claimed by participants in both demonstrations: the massive, overwhelmingly white “Restore Honor to America/Turn back to God” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, promoted by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin AND the much smaller, mostly African American one in the football field of nearby Dunbar High School, led by Al Sharpton.
To begin with, I believe King would have made the same speech to both gatherings. The secret of his leadership was that he spoke to the humanity in everyone, regardless of race or class. That’s why a national holiday has been named for him.
I also believe that in 2010, 47 years after King’s famous “I have a Dream” speech, given during the 1963 March on Washington, he would have talked mainly not about his and our dream for overcoming racial discrimination and segregation, but about the huge and unprecedented challenges, choices and responsibilities we face in the light of today’s grim realities:
- Our two lost wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which we have not only killed and wounded thousands of Americans, but killed, wounded, and ruined the lives of millions of Iraqis;
- The billions of dollars we have squandered on these wars of choice to the point that we are now forced to cut back on elementary domestic needs like fire stations, street lighting, and salaries for teachers and other public employees;
- The floods and mudslides in Pakistan, China and Iowa that are the result of global warming, i.e., our refusal to acknowledge ecological limits to economic growth;
- The tens of millions of Americans who are unemployed and underemployed because we have allowed corporations not only to replace human beings with robots but also to export jobs overseas in order to make higher profits;
- The escalating violence against Latinos and Arab Americans as times get tougher.
These catastrophes have made it increasingly urgent that we Americans begin making the radical revolution of values against the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism which King called for in his 1967 “Time to break the silence” anti-Vietnam War speech at Riverside Church.
How do we begin this radical revolution?
I believe that MLK would have recognized that this crisis, like most crises, is not only a danger but an opportunity.
It is our opportunity to recognize that by giving priority to economics over community in the last 300-400 years we have deviated from the path that has enabled the human race to survive and evolve.
In his projection of “beloved community,” King understood what historians and anthropologists (such as Hungarian philosopher Karl Polanyi, quoted below) have been discovering in their research, that down through the ages:
Man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only so far as they serve this end. Neither the process of production or that of distribution is linked to specific economic interests attached to the possession of goods; but every single step in that process is geared to a number of social interests…. These interests will be very different in a small hunting and fishing community from those in a vast despotic society, but in either case the economic system will be run on non-economic motives.
Over the last 50 years, this passage from Polanyi's The Great Transformation, (Beacon 1957) has been part of who I am, in both my thinking and my community organizing.
The current collapse of our economic system is our opportunity to return to community or non-economic means to meet our economic needs. That is what Detroit’s de-industrialization has made both necessary and possible. That is what has given birth to Detroit as a City of Hope. That is MLK’s legacy to all of us.