The main talent of Martin Luther King Jr., among many, was an ability to lift into wide awareness brutality and unfairness that a majority had been willing to ignore. The struggle for racial justice is not over (for example, the same Supreme Court that proclaimed the personhood of corporations is about to consider a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965). But MLK helped lead the way to notable success.
In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King responded in 1963 to a challenge from white religious leaders who sought to dissuade him from disobeying the law and causing trouble, who urged him to "wait." In the margin of newspapers, the only paper available to him in that jail, King composed one of the greatest letters in U.S. history, smuggled out by his lawyer. He methodically replied to objection after objection against his civil rights campaign, explaining his values and justifying his methods. King’s values came from a religion that his family had long served; his methods, in part from Gandhi, who had been inspired by our homegrown Thoreau.
King is the only American, apart from our first president, who has a Federal holiday named after him. (Columbus of course was Italian; Christ, Jewish.) Is King mainly celebrated for his appeal to conscience, his non-violence? People are flattered to be regarded as acting in accord with a conscience. With regard to race, Americans agree, at least in principle, that the system should be open to talent wherever it appears, that nobody should be discriminated against.
Every system has its ways to dealing with unwanted information. Under Stalin the Soviets edited fallen figures out of photographs. In a free country we prefer the bear hug, the embrace of a figure’s least objectionable sides. Thus, King is recalled for his 17 minute "I have a dream" speech in 1963, with a huge marble Lincoln gazing over his shoulder, but we hear scant mention of his speech at Riverside church in 1967.
As reaction to the latter speech revealed, Americans might be willing to grant fair access to the system, even grant it to the offspring of slaves, but woe to anyone who raises questions about the type of system we have. King was invited to the church by "Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam," an anti-war group. In a slow, eloquent voice, he gave reasons for opposing continuation of U.S. involvement in the war, and for favoring Federal action against poverty, which would require money otherwise spent on the military. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death," he said.
Blistering criticism came from important publishers, even some who had supported Dr. King’s racial struggle. The Washington Post wrote that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people." Life magazine characterized the speech as "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi."
Today we face a different challenge, in the form of climate change, but again we have a majority who are seemingly ignoring a danger, as many were willing in King’s era to ignore an injustice. Again the challenge is to raise the situation into widespread awareness — the situation and the solutions.
Everybody knows, to borrow a phrase from the songwriter-singer Leonard Cohen, well, most people sort of know we have a problem, but it’s imagined to be far off, many people doubt we could get other countries to go along, we assume we could "adapt" to weird weather, we hope that some unforeseen discovery will save us, so it goes. Besides, it is alleged, without careful analysis, or any analysis at all, that an attempt to preserve the climate would wreck the economy. We don’t want to pay more for energy or have less. We don’t yet feel, as MLK once said, "the fierce urgency of now." With regard to civil rights, he helped us feel that urgency.