As we celebrate the rich legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am drawn back to my favorite speech of his, “Where Do We Go From Here?”. This was Dr. King’s last address as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, given toward to end of his life in 1967. It outlines two core principles of King’s unfulfilled legacy that united the questions of racial injustice with those of economic inequality and rampant militarism. It was a deep, radical interrogation of the underpinnings of American society and it still resonates today.
When dealing with the issue of poverty, King notes that, “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” For Dr. King, this meant looking at the entire society and asking questions about “the economic system [and] the broader distribution of wealth.” It meant thinking about “the restructuring of the whole of American society.”
Coming to terms with accusations of communism in the midst of the Cold War, he was blunt: “I’m not talking about communism. What I’m saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
King then ended his speech with a stirring call to move forward with a “divine dissatisfaction”:
So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a “divine dissatisfaction.” Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.
What King is doing here is challenging us to think beyond the stale duality of the Cold War—Stalinism versus Capitalism–because the American religion of anti-communism makes it nearly impossible to seriously talk about economic inequality without being red-baited. Ironically, more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin wall, the American right has managed to translate Cold War anti-communism into a radical embrace of the free market that questions the very value of government, period. Even the most benign reformist measures are assailed as the rebirth of the Soviet Empire in some circles.
If we can leave this pervasive stupidity behind for a moment, however, what King’s words challenge us to do today is think beyond the neoliberal economic dogma that asserts that the market can solve all problems. If there is a radicalism afoot today, it is these ideas—that all public institutions are suspect, that taxes are inherently evil, and that business models and yet more privatization can solve everything from how to educate our children to how to treat patients in the hospital. If we are afraid to say this, we may as well pack up and go home. As long as the game is played on neoliberal turf, ordinary folks will lose. Our standard of living will continue to decline, the gap between the rich and the poor will grow, and our politics will become less and less democratic as corporate money floods into the pockets of the politicians on both sides of the aisle. The road we are currently on leads to a dead-end. Thinking that we can outwit the right by repositioning ourselves on their playing field is a fool’s errand.
Thus any economic program that deserves our attention needs to start with an overt critique of free market fundamentalism. In opposition to this Social Darwinist dogma, we must insist that capitalism and democracy are not synonymous. Indeed, almost all of our current economic, social, environmental, and international problems have to do with the unchecked excesses of the free market system. In the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, Americans clamored for more government to help protect them from the excesses of the marketplace and the unregulated power of big business. We have forgotten this history at our peril.
We must also remember that local, state, national, and international problems are interrelated. If we think we can act locally without keeping our eye on the bigger picture, we will lack an adequate map of power to analyze our problems and will end up perpetually fighting rear guard actions or settling for half measures or worse. Our interdependence as individuals, communities, and nations and as beings on this planet should always be a starting point. This both complicates our situations and offers new possibilities for alliances.
And the Martin Luther King holiday only serves us if we use our annual celebration of the man as a reminder of how much remains to be done. The sanitized version of King as a vanilla saint who called on us to just move beyond our differences does a disservice to him and his legacy.
Our collective remembrance of MLK is most useful when it troubles us. His words should haunt us as we consider how much the “triple evils” of racism, economic exploitation, and rampant militarism are still with us.
We should think of King and be disturbed by the dogged persistence of racism in our culture, the entrenchment of an even deeper level of economic inequality than he knew, and the unquestioned and bipartisan acceptance of an obscenely bloated military budget while we debate cutting social programs. His call for a “higher synthesis” of values should make us question how blithely we have accepted the penetration of market values into every aspect of our personal and social lives. And his urging us to maintain a “divine dissatisfaction” should pull us away from embracing a neutered pragmatism that gives up on fundamental progressive principles in the name of empty, short-term political victories.
So let us take a moment today to honor the memory of a man who died standing with striking black sanitation workers (yes, public sector union employees) because he saw the issues of racism and economic inequality and inextricably linked. Let us also remember the man who challenged a sitting Democratic President on the war in Vietnam because it was unjust and took millions of dollars away from the war on poverty at home. And let us honor the man who suggested that love should lead us away from an atomized competitive individualism that placed the values of the market against the embrace of a greater sense of self.