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The coming depression blog | December 15, 2017

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Martin Luther King Jr’s universal message

Much has transpired in America these past few weeks leading to this annual recognition of Martin Luther King Jr’s life. I’ve cringed as I’ve listened to one Republican presidential candidate after another diss those struggling financially by saying there is “class envy”, that the wealthy are who they are simply because they’ve worked harder. I had flashbacks to Ronald Reagan and George W Bush when some of these current Republican standard-bearers used thinly veiled racist and classist sentiments to blame, conveniently, blacks and cash-strapped Americans for our nation’s deep-rooted social ills.

Since the earliest days of the republic, clergymen have played major roles in American politics. In the years prior to the Civil War, preachers fanned the flames of the abolitionist movement. They were hair shirts. Martin Luther King Jr. was in that tradition. In King’s case, it was notable that a minister of the Gospel played such a pre-eminent role in a decade that was as secular, albeit idealistic, as the 1960s.

These documents include Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech and lecture, the Letter from Birmingham Jail, a draft of his Boston University doctoral dissertation, an early transcript of his “I Have a Dream” speech, sermons and sermon notes, public addresses, eulogies for civil rights martyrs, personal correspondence, and documents related to campaigns in Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala.; Albany, Ga.; St. Augustine, Fla.; Chicago and Cleveland.

I am middle-class now, but I come from generations of poverty dating to American slavery in the 1800s. My mother, with her eighth-grade education, raised me alone on welfare, government cheese and, yes, food stamps, as she sought jobs with a livable wage. My mother labored very hard, right until her retirement a few years ago, but she never earned an income above the poverty line. Had it not been for Dr King, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, the anonymous soldiers of the Civil Rights movement and key government programs resulting from their efforts, I am positive I wouldn’t have had the kind of life, or educational and employment opportunities, that I have had. I’m not even sure if I’d be alive today.

The historical importance of Dr. King is that he liberated one region of our country from a debilitating way of life. And in that process he reminded all Americans of their birthright.

The collection reveals a great deal about Martin Luther King Jr. — his sharp intellect, his immense spiritual depth, his love of family, his ability to endure repeated threats on his life, his courage in pushing the civil rights movement into the more controversial spheres of economic justice and foreign policy, and his capacity to persist in his commitment to nonviolence when challenged by Black militants and urban riots.

Dr King spoke loud and often, in the final days of his life, about economic injustice, about poverty. When he realized the Vietnam War had no end in sight and was redirecting monies that could be spent on transforming the lives of millions of Americans – namely, the poor and the middle class – he courageously condemned that military build-up, although distracters slammed him as foolish and unpatriotic.

While researching Dr. King’s international trips, I was directed by a colleague to a website on African Americans GIs, the civil rights struggle, and Germany. Invited by Mayor Willi Brandt, Dr. King visited Berlin in 1964. He delivered a sermon to 20,000 West Berliners at an outdoor arena and then crossed the border into East Berlin, amazingly waved through Checkpoint Charlie without a passport.

Dr. King carried a universal message. It was a message not just for the black people of America. His message was for all Americans and all mankind. It was a message about the basic promise our country makes to all kinds and classes of persons. That promise of civil equality is the cornerstone of our democracy. Dr. King helped us remember it. We must never forget it.

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