January 20, 2020

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fight for Equality

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is highly celebrated this time of year, with a national holiday in his name occurring on the third Monday of January, and as a heroic figure recognized during Black History Month in February. We revere King for his incredible “I Have a Dream speech” delivered in August 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. To remember King, I also like to teach my students about some of his other activism and speeches they may not know. It’s a way of appreciating more of what King valued and fought for, and contemplating what else he might have been able to accomplish had his life not tragically been cut short by assassination in 1968 at the age of 39.

It’s fitting that we honor King in the sociology community--he earned a Bachelor’s degree in sociology from Morehouse College where he was president of the sociology club. In sociology courses we learn about racism, injustice, inequality, social change and so many other subjects that King spoke poetically about and worked on while being at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. A summary of his achievements can be viewed at The King Center website, where we can gain understanding about his leadership and Gandhi-inspired philosophy of nonviolent resistance.

His “I Have a Dream” speech is no doubt beautiful and awe-inspiring. The sixteen-minute speech is often shortened to focus on the last few minutes of the speech with its vision of racial harmony. I encourage a reading of the full transcript of the speech or listening to the entire speech, in which King spoke about black people being “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” and living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

There are many powerful moments in the speech we don’t usually hear, like when he says, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality” and “We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote” (The Voting Rights Act was signed into law in August 1965, shortly after The Selma to Montgomery march, which King helped organized and lead). King was present when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Voting Right Act.

I like to play his acceptance speech in December 1964 for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in class. I get chills listening to King say:

I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

During the speech he affirmed his strong belief in nonviolence:

Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.

I’m astonished each time I watch the speech, amazed about how many profound things he said in a mere twelve minutes of time. He names the problems of racism and war, but remains hopeful:

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up.

Using the ground crew of an airline for a metaphor, he acknowledges the hard work and dedication of people who collectively fight for change:

Every time I take a flight, I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible–the known pilots and the unknown ground crew….You honor the ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth.

The speech concludes with one my favorite King phrases, one that often rings in my head: “the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.”

With just one year left in his life, King continued to speak out against racism, poverty, and war, which he called the three major evils. In a speech in May 1967, he said, “racial injustice is still the Negro’s burden and America’s shame.” He talked about America being in a new phase, “a struggle for genuine equality on all levels, and this will be a much more difficult struggle.”

Again, I marvel at his brilliant, clear-eyed analysis: “Now we are in a period where it will cost the nation billions of dollars to get rid of poverty, to get rid of slums, to make quality integrated education a reality.” In addressing poverty, he talked about 40 million people being deprived of the basic necessities of life: “Some of them are Mexican Americans. Some of them are Indians. Some are Puerto Ricans. Some are Appalachian whites. The vast majority are Negroes in proportion to their size in the population.”

He transitioned to speaking about war (he had become a critic of the Vietnam War), and observed the connection between racism, poverty, and war:

Somehow these three evils are tied together. The triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism… During a period of war, when a nation becomes obsessed with the guns of war, social programs inevitably suffer. People become insensitive to pain and agony in their own midst.

Given the persistence of poverty, racism, and war, I’m reminded of Cornel West’s op-ed from 2011, entitled “Dr. King Weeps From His Grave.” Picking up on the themes of King, West describes poverty as an “economic catastrophe,” racism as a “moral catastrophe” and militarism as an “imperial catastrophe.” And knowing that King was anti-materialistic, West describes materialism as “a spiritual catastrophe, promoted by a corporate media multiplex and a culture industry that have hardened the hearts of hard-core consumers and coarsened the consciences of would-be citizens.”

In November 1967, King announced the Poor People’s campaign, directing attention to economic injustice. As can be heard in a brief audio clip, King described economic conditions and poverty as an emergency problem; in fact, a worsening problem as “the gap between the poor and the affluent society increases.”

Earlier in 1967, during an appearance on the Merv Griffin show, King reflected on one hand, progress achieved (the end of legal segregation as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), and on the other hand, difficult economic problems:

It’s much easier to eradicate segregation for instance on buses or in public accommodations than it is to eradicate slums. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to create jobs and we are in a phase of the struggle now which is really a struggle for genuine equality, a struggle to get rid of poverty, to eradicate slums, to get rid of the syndrome of deprivation surrounding slum life and economic insecurity and this is where we must go now.

In discussing the legacy of King and the state of contemporary society, Eddie Glaude Jr. identifies several inequalities between black and white Americans that remain in place (higher unemployment rates for black people, more poverty among black people, less wealth for black people, lower homeownership rates for black people).

Clearly, equality has not yet been achieved. Today there is a new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which seeks to “confront the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.” Writing about the new campaign, William J. Barber II says:

We’ve paid more than $4 trillion since 2001 to fight the War on Terror while claiming that we lack the resources to furnish decent medical care for every American. Our problem isn’t that we don’t have enough money. It’s that we don’t have the moral capacity to face what ails our society.

King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to support sanitation workers on strike, following the deaths of two workers in February 1968 when a malfunctioning garbage truck crushed them. Speaking in Memphis, he earned applause by praising workers, noting that workers who aren’t in “professional” jobs are often unappreciated and overlooked: “Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth.” More applause ensued after he declared, “it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

The strike ended on April 16, with wage increases being a part of the settlement. Cleophus Smith was one of the workers who marched with King during the strike. In 2018, at the age of 75, he was still a sanitation worker in Memphis, and is featured in this must-watch video in which he comments on King’s legacy and leadership. I think it’s valuable to impress upon sociology students how strongly King supported workers and his conviction that all labor has dignity.

King’s last speech occurred on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, the day before he was assassinated:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

There’s a touching story about a part of the speech I like to share with my students. Back in 1958, King was stabbed in Harlem, and an emergency room doctor said that if King had merely sneezed, he likely would have died. During his final speech, King recalled a letter he received from a high school student after he’d been stabbed, in which she wrote: “I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze.” To which King added: “And I want to say tonight--I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn't sneeze.”

This, of course, is far from a comprehensive coverage of King’s life and work. I endeavored to share examples of King’s words and actions that inspire me and that I hope inspire my students and readers of the Everyday Sociology Blog. To end this post, I’d like to offer a reflection from Congressman John L. Lewis, a Civil Rights leader who along with other marchers endured brutal violence from Alabama state troopers on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. At the time of this writing, Lewis announced he has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The entire article is definitely worth reading, as I include only a portion here:

Of all the gifts given us by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I think the greatest has been the belief in society’s ability to change and the power each of us has to affect that change. I am just one man whose life was altered by this conviction….The legacy of his courageous acts and sacrifices filters into the world around us. We stand on his shoulders. We celebrate his commitment to peace and love, his philosophy of nonviolence, his respect for all peoples… It is disappointing that many of Dr. King’s battles remain to be won, that we have not yet laid down the burden of racism, the burden of discrimination, that there is too much violence. It is disappointing that the Congress is walking away from the poor and disenfranchised. It is disappointing we are turning some of our brothers and sisters away from our shores. But we as a country are forever in his debt… Dr. King taught us not to become bitter or hostile. He taught us to have faith. Dr. King taught us to be human, to treat our fellow human beings as we wish to be treated. We owe it to him to do so.

                 

Comments

The King inspires me to change society for the better. There is still racism in our culture. It bothers me when I see it used common place around my town. Very seldom do you see it, but it's there. The only way everyone can fix it is to love each other.

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