Who was Martin Luther King Jr? King was a man of three messages, two methods, and one theme. He had a message for each of the three evils which he could identify in his time and he saw these monstrosities as being intertwined. In other words, one couldn't pick and choose when addressing these crimes and still do justice to King's message.
Of course, King's first message was against racism. We have heard this and yet we often act as if we have not. Some of us will point with pride about how we no longer harbor prejudice against Blacks but we seem very fearful of Muslims and Arabs. And many of us are very accepting of all Israeli actions against the Palestinians while being so critical of their resistance while others will do just the opposite.
And if we don't discriminate against others based on race, we'll find other reasons. The current cultural war over same-sex marriage yields slippery slope arguments that make horrendous and fallacious comparisons between gays and others. These comparisons say more about those making them than about their targets.
And if our bigotry is not based on race or sexual orientation, then we feel free to zero in on people because of their ideologies. In particular, we wear the labels of 'Conservative,' 'Liberal,' and 'Leftist' so hard and tight that we claim that there is nothing to be learned from the other groups. In other words, many non-Conservatives believe that the Conservative view of personal morality could not contribute to society. And many Conservatives fear that the Liberal's view of those with wealth sharing benefits with those in need will kill our economy, freedoms and our morality. And Capitalists believe that all Leftists, because of their opposition to capitalism and support for collectivism, support tyrannical regimes such as those that existed in the Soviet Union or Red China. Nobody believes that those from the other groups have nothing to contribute to any politico-economic discussion.
Chris Rock said something to the effect that those who are conservative or liberal in everything belong to gangs (click here). Their minds are made up before listening to the issues and thus they are acting on blind loyalty. And Mr. Rock could not be anymore correct. Those who are prejudiced against people from other ideologies need to hear King's speech against the Vietnam War (click here for quote) when he spoke about the following:
The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
So each group paints the others as monoliths and thus they see no need to listen to them. Yes, as a Leftist I have strong disagreements with Conservatives and Liberals about politics and the economy, but does that mean that I can't learn anything from them? The Conservative emphasis on personal morality can help raise our society upwards though their judgmental attitude against those who live by different standards tears apart societies and countries by allowing for the persecution of others. And the Liberal emphasis on a more libertarian society with regard to personal morality allows for some to overlook the humanity of the unborn and for others to look down on or even persecute Conservatives. And the Leftist opposition to Capitalism pushes some to see no redeeming qualities in either Conservatives or Liberals.
Thus, too many of us think that as long as the Black person is not a target of our fear and scorn, that we have healed ourselves of racism and bigotry. Those who think that way are in too much of a hurry to justify themselves and show either an inability or reluctance to escape literalism.
Against Economic Injustice
King did not preach against racism alone, he also spoke against economic injustice. He believed that we should have a guaranteed national income that lifted everybody from poverty. He believed in non-poverty wages for full-time work. But such are rather concrete ideas. His ideas of racial equality spread to his ideas of the economy and personal dignity. Overall, he was against an impersonal economy that revolved around consolidation of wealth by some and the distraction caused by new technology all of which is at the expense of people in general and the poor in particular. And when King talked about the poor, though he mentioned them by race, he didn't divide them that way. He considered all of the poor to be his brothers and sisters.
We should note that when King talked about economic injustice, he described it in speeches where he also spoke against both racism and violence. We can see this in his speeches from 1957 to 1968. We should also note what Martin Luther King Jr was doing when he was assassinated. He was in Memphis, Tennessee, campaigning for economic justice for the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee.
What King said about economic justice challenges everybody. To the Liberals who try to legislate benefits and to the Conservatives who put all of the impetus for escaping poverty on the poor, which basically blames only the poor for their poverty, King declares that we also need to examine the edifice that puts people into poverty. That means that we shouldn't just accept the status quo, but that we should be willing to change the current economic system. And it isn't just our system, it is our basic ethic of putting people last before money and things which needs to reordered.
But with all of this, Leftists, like myself, can't assume that our system will provide enough of a fix. For Leftists who believe in worker-owned and democratically run workplaces, without a spirit of collectivism in the people, we could end up with similar results to what we have today. People might then ask, what good is the Leftist position? The Leftist position of extending democracy to places like where people work disperses power rather than consolidates it. The dispersing of power keeps exceptionally abled individuals from accumulating it and thus helps prevent them from using power to abuse others. The extension of democracy provides a structural checkpoint for wealth and power that the current system cannot do.
So we should note here that to understand what King was saying about economic injustice we must realize that no particular side or ideology can claim to have a monopoly on representing his views or to be above reproach.
Much of what King said against militarism can be found in his speech against the Vietnam War (click here). It is here that, going back to economic injustice, he said that when profits, machines, and property rights are more important than people, then the evils of racism, "extreme materialism," and militarism cannot be defeated. That was toward the end of his speech. Toward the beginning of his speech he stated that those who honored him for his fight against racism but were perplexed over his opposition to the War never knew him. Why?
King listed most of his reasons in that speech. He knew that the more that was spent on the military and the war, the less that would be spent on helping those in need at home. He was against militarism because the war he opposed asked Blacks and Whites to kill, be wounded, and be killed together. He opposed militarism because it provided a role model for resorting to violence to solve problems to the young men in our cities. He opposed the Vietnam War because it sickened America's soul and compromised any integrity we claim to have for life. He opposed militarism and the Vietnam War because he believed in the brotherhood of man regardless of their nation, race, or creed. And he believed in this brotherhood because he believed that Christ died for His enemies. But he also opposed war and militarism because of the ominous future such brought us in the nuclear age.
King stated that we now of a choice between "nonviolence or nonexistence" in both 1960 and 1968 (click here and there). He picked nonviolence not just for how we should protest and promote social causes, but for how nations conduct themselves too. And it is in this latter sense that we see where King opposed militarism.
In addition to his 3 messages, King restricted himself to using two methods in promoting his causes. Those two methods were trying to win over his opponents and to be involved.
Winning Over Opponents
The goal for King's activism and words were not just to win concessions, but to facilitate reconciliation and win friendship, as was stated in the Montgomery Bus Protests (click here). The goal was not just to gain rights and dignity that were long denied to Blacks; it was to bring Blacks and Whites together in the spirit of brotherhood. This is the essential reason why King chose nonviolence. For even when violence wins the day, it causes bitterness and resentment afterwards.
All of this is because for King, the enemy did not consist of the people who were enforcing an unjust system, but the spirit of the system itself. King wasn't battling Whites but injustice. And as much as the Left would love to adopt King as its own, this is where we have fallen dreadfully short, at least we have in the Occupy Movement.
In separating the 1% from the 99%, our goal was to conquer rather than to win over the 1%. This is where King would confront and oppose us. And he would do that, not because we were wrong about what 1% was doing, but because we wanted to defeat and humiliate them. As a result, they used their resources to shut down the encampments and to carry on as usual with little public opposition. The Left's message was correct in analysis but dreadfully wrong in design. The design flaw was that the Left tried to create an extended democracy for the 99% only. A full democracy requires 100% of the people. And though we have had some legal victories here and there, the status quo remains and the global downward spiral continues.
Central to King's goal of winning people over was his preaching against violence. But King upped the ante here. He did that by opposing two kinds of violence. King opposed the most obvious kind of violence, external violence. Such is easier to do than what King added to the subject of nonviolence. King added that we must abstain from internal violence. He said that we cannot even afford to hate or insult those who are hurting us. Why? First, such people deserve dignity because they are people. Second, it is because we cannot castigate others and win their friendship at the same time. Again, King's strategy in defeating unjust systems was to be reconciled and win friendship. This did not mean that his tactics relied on libertarianism. He felt that the law was important in controlling the behavior of those who would not control themselves. But the end game was to win people over.
To Be Involved
We could summarize King's other method for promoting his messages was to get everybody involved. Those who did nothing were complicit in the evil of the status quo. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that when he said (click here for quote):
He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.
King also stated this principle when he interpreted Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan (click here). King understood the reaction of the priest and the Levite as being "what will happen to me" if, on this dangerous road, I stopped to help this man. According to King, the Good Samaritan reversed the question. The Good Samaritan got involved because he dared to ask, "what will happen to him," if he neglected the man who was beaten and robbed. This kind of thinking went into King's discussion of the poverty of India (click here) and how we are all interrelated.
There are a number of ways to be involved with those in need and individuals from all of the groups mentioned here do help others. And though we don't see eye-to-eye on what that involvement should consist of, we should acknowledge how those who are from other groups try to help those in need. Perhaps this is another reason why we should not look to conquer others.
King's One Theme
We could sum up King's messages and methods into one very short statement. That statement is: Everybody counts. This everybody includes the wealthiest of the 1% to the poorest of the 99%. It includes everybody from one's own creed to everybody from all of the other creeds. It includes everybody from one's own race to everybody from all of the other races. And, what should be noted in our present time, it includes everybody from one's own ideology to everybody from all of the other ideologies. The same is true about those from different nations.
That King's theme of everybody counting does not mean that the road together or our dialogue will always be smooth and conflict-free. But this theme should be our theme too even when we realize that nobody carries out this theme perfectly, not even King carried out this theme perfectly. Nonetheless, that is the theme of his message and those who would use a partial or distorted picture of King so as to get street cred for being like him need to be corrected. But those who correct others must also realize that to encounter the real Martin Luther King Jr. is to be confronted with a myriad of one's own personal and group's faults. This is true for every person and every group.