The real Martin Luther King Jr. would have some words for us.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was no fig leaf for wayward corporations and politicians. He was their harshest critic.
Every MLK Day, I read Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, delivered from Riverside Church in 1967. Here are a few of the most salient excerpts (this may be long, but, trust me, it’s worth the read).
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: "Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?" "Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you hurting the cause of your people," they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
To appreciate the awesome courage of this speech, remember that Dr. King spoke these words at the height of the Vietnam War, touching on the deepest political insecurity of his political partner, President Lyndon B. Johnson — who had already delivered critical legislative wins in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But it was conviction that spurred Dr. King on.
I love and appreciate the fact that we honor Dr. King. But his elevation to the level of national sainthood has come with an unintended cost. By embalming him for public consumption, the courageous activist who was reviled in his time has been rendered a mascot. We cast the victories delivered by the civil rights movement he helped lead as if they were a foregone conclusion. But the real Dr. King was demonized in his time. According to a 1968 Harris Poll, Dr. King had a 75% disapproval rating at the time of his assassination. Speaking truth to power is never popular.