Like many people who were born after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, I learned of his tremendous civil rights work and achievements through my public school’s curriculum. Perhaps I missed the discussion of his strong economic justice agenda in grade school, but I suspect that his civil rights victories and the struggle therefore were taught to the near exclusion of topics such as support for programs for the poor and for workers’ rights.
It is only as an adult that the fullness of his vision has come into focus for me. Last week, I listened to excerpts from Dr. King’s speech, “Why I Oppose the Vietnam War.” Given in 1967, the sermon was a tremendous indictment of the war in Vietnam and highlighted Dr. King’s commitment to changing the conditions of poor people. For those who grew up only celebrating King’s civil rights legacy, the strength of his impeachment of the profit-over-people incentives he noted in 1960s America is surprising. For those who wish our leaders could more openly discuss that there are poor people in 21st century America whose lives are valuable and worth investing in, Dr. King’s words are particularly poignant.
Consider the following passage from the sermon:
There is…a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed that there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the Poverty Program. There were experiments, hopes, and new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam. And I watched the program broken as if it was some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war.
Listening to such an outspoken pacifist and a full-throated supporter of programs for the poor, which Dr. King later in the sermon referred to as ones of “social uplift,” it is hard not to draw parallels to today’s society. There are a number of prescient arguments put forth by Dr. King in his speech regarding what our nation needed to do to combat the slide into a society that valued the implements of war and profit-seeking over humanity. His advice should be revisited often:
We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.
Our society certainly places a premium on machines and computers and stock values. But the value of people — without regard to their net worth — must not be eclipsed by our baser instincts of consumption. This is a lesson that is worth teaching to our children.