Stop celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.

Editor’s note: Professor Matt Rindge wrote this guest column for Spokane Faith & Values in 2013. We chose to re-run it today.

Today America engaged in its annual ritual of misremembering Martin Luther King, Jr. Although Rev. Dr. King often indicted what he called the “triple evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism,” America chiefly associates King with only one of these ills; our predominant picture of King is as an opponent of racial segregation.

But this image is a distortion. For in the last few years of his life, King increasingly aimed his prophetic critique at the twin “evils” of poverty and America’s militarism.

Efforts to help poor people led King to be in Memphis on the day of his assassination. He was there to join a strike of 1,300 sanitation workers seeking better working conditions, higher wages, and the right to join a union.

King raised troubling questions about an economic system that perpetuates poverty. In an August 1967 speech (“Where Do We Go from Here”) — eight months before he was killed — he declared:

“Why are there 40 million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. 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.”

The Memphis sanitation strike was a part of the “Poor People’s Campaign,” which King began to organize in the last months of his life. This campaign would shift the primary focus of the Civil Rights Movement to the economic concerns of “poor people of all colors.” The campaign would seek, among other things, to secure poor people with jobs that paid a fair wage, unemployment insurance, and education. The campaign’s goals died along with King.

The week before he was killed King gave a speech (“Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution”) in which he offered an alternative economic proposal:

“. . . we spend in America millions of dollars a day to store surplus food, and I said to myself, ‘I know where we can store that food free of charge — in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night.’ And maybe we spend far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding.”

In his final speech, King returned to poverty. Although most clips of his “mountaintop” speech feature the foreshadowing of his death (“I may not get there with you …”), King’s primary aim was to motivate people to support the striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Quoting Luke’s gospel, King maintained:

“Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me,’ and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”

“It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.”

Restructuring society would require concrete economic changes, and King made these clear. He instructed the audience to stop purchasing Coca-Cola and Wonder Bread. He called for a “bank-in” movement, advising financial withdrawals from downtown Memphis banks and insurance companies.

King’s final statement on poverty appeared 12 days after his assassination in a Look magazine article, “Showdown for Nonviolence.” The same non-violent demonstrations used to fight segregation, King argued, should now be organized to address “the economic problem — the right to live, to have a job and income …” King called for an “Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” that would “guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work” and an “income for all who are not able to work.”

Economic justice, it seems, surpassed racial equality as King’s chief concern.

“The economic question is the most crucial that black people, and poor people generally, are confronting.”

In the last year of his life, King also devoted increasing attention to critiquing America’s use of violence in Vietnam. Speaking at New York’s Riverside Church — one year to the day before he was killed — King described the incongruity between his preaching and America’s practices:

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

King suggested that a commitment to the world’s most vulnerable members should prevail over patriotism:

“This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy . . .”

King viewed America’s devotion to war in religious terms:

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Twenty-six days later, King again spoke out on Vietnam in a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. He described America’s hypocritical responses to his messages of non-violence.

“There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, ‘Be non-violent toward Jim Clark,’ but will curse and damn you when you say, ‘Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children.’ There’s something wrong with that press!”

Remembering King primarily for his struggle against segregation is to misremember him. (America does with King what the Church has done to Jesus: remade him in our own image.) Domesticating and sterilizing King is the only way to integrate him into our national consciousness. The unlikely alternative would be to question two of America’s sacred engines: its economy and military. Ironically, King’s critiques of poverty and militarism are more relevant today than his work on behalf of racial integration.

To honor King, we need to stop celebrating him. Perhaps the very nature of celebration makes distortion inevitable. A National Day of Lamenting King would be more fitting, and helpful in calling to mind the ways we betray two fundamental aspects of his legacy.


Matthew S. Rindge is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. He is currently writing “Cinematic Parables: Subverting the Religion of the American Dream.” Follow him on Twitter at @mattrindge.

About Matthew Rindge, Ph.D.

Matthew S. Rindge is professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. His latest book is "Profane Parables: Film and the American Dream." He has published dozens of articles and chapters on the Bible, religion, and popular culture, and he has received multiple awards for teaching and scholarship.

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  1. Wow, Matt, you swing a heavy hammer with delicate precision. Could your words be any more stripped, indicting, and inconsequential? For who today will listen to you if they will not listen to the ‘misremembered’ and ‘remade’? I hope all who read will listen in an ancient Hebraic sense, where to hear is to obey. I am troubled by this article and I don’t know what to do about it, but I thank you – as always – for loosing these words from your heart, where you might have only guarded them carefully.

  2. Thanks, Rick (I think). I do hope they’re not inconsequential. But you are right about our inability to hear truth, especially when it challenges sacred idols in our culture. Thank you for your (always) thoughtful words.

  3. Well written Matt! For far too long have we bypassed 2 of the 3 evil’s that King rallied against. Our economy has only grown in its disparity between the rich and the poor. And our recent use of drones and other military tactics that harm civilians is as troubling as ever. Keep speaking out!

  4. As someone who lives and pastors among the poor in East Central these matters are continually before me. Our community resource center is neck deep in a social service swamp and countless I divi duals and families are drowning.

    Im not sure how you can say that:

    “fair wage, unemployment insurance, and education. The campaign’s goals died along with King.”

    Do you seriously see this reality at Gonzaga? I don’t see it here in my neighborhood.

    Economics is militarism in this nation and this city. Remove militarism and the economic recovery would fall into chaos. We live through war as Americans. Right or wrong this government isn’t going to stop the family business from prospering, in fact it’s expanding into new markets, like Western Africa now. It’s even opened up new possibilities for the poorest of the poor, women. Now women can expand their career options and go off to kill.

    King is reimagined in our culture, selective memory indeed, but some of that is the realization that like Ghandi, these were men not saviors. Liberal/progressive politics or economics are not gospel, they are human attempts to address societal ills and aspirations and many of those ideals are destroying our urban poor…I ink MLK Jr would agree if he were alive today.

  5. WWJD. The moral question.

  6. Doug – Agreed. The use of drones (their history and future possibilities) is troubling on a number of levels.

    Eric – you’re right about the integral link between economics and the military. The film WHY WE FIGHT illustrates the way in which America has economic interests in maintaining a constant state of war.

    For Jesus, economics and gospel were fully intertwined and not separate (Lk 4:16-30).

  7. The Luke passage points to purpose not sure it established an economic path.

  8. what?? because YOU think that Dr King is only remembered for his work toward racial equality, your answer is to remove the remembrance rather than to expand the education to include celebrating his work in other areas like poverty and passive resistance, etc…
    first of all.. sorry your recall of Dr King is so limited, but please don’t project that on me and others who do remember him for ALL his work.
    and secondly, since the sidebar link frames it in this context: “what would Jesus do?” would He instruct us to forget the prophet Isaiah because people seemed to be hip to only a portion of the prophesies and weren’t getting the big picture? would He teach an “it’s all or nothing” lesson, that we should learn and practice every good thing to perfection, or chuck it all because if it’s not complete it’s nothing.
    do you actually teach this stuff?

  9. It’s this psychological thing that exist where It’s embedded in minds that I have to be something and I must escape from something. In this quest one fails to live because he/she is seeking to “Earn a living” in effort to be accepted by society, but importantly have a decent access to the basic needs of life, that’s troubling

    “What do you want to be when you grow up?” … “I Gotta Make it Out the Ghetto” The question and statement goes back to my first sentence.

    One lose sense of value in his/her self as a human being, because he/she seeking to establish it in themselves as a citizen. The cost of equality comes at the expense of the american dream.

    Condemning people who are less fortunate with the assumption that were lazy or trouble-makers or the combination thereof is heartbreaking…

    It’s heartbreaking when my grandfather passionately declares, “If you aint got no money in America you might as well go the graveyard!”

    We, definitely for our children, need to see our value in ourselves as human beings, and establish economic equality in our communities. It is one of my grand desires to help contribute to the accomplishment of that.

  10. Alas hitting the wrong button and I just lost what I wrote. So beginning again:
    Three thoughts:

    1. We are fortunate to live in a society that protects the right of non-violent protest in our constitution and that it is upheld by our Government. This did not prevent the tragedy that was the murder of Dr. King, but allowed him to lead a great movement using nonviolent means.
    This idea that capitalism is bad contrasts with some of the tools of nonviolence; Boycotting: not riding a bus, bringing lunch to work, not shopping at certain stores, withdrawing accounts from a bank, all of these are part of a capitalist economy. True capitalism has no place for discrimination and prejudice, instead it responds to the demands of the market. This leads to the next idea…
    2. I disagree with the idea that America is not a land of opportunity, or that people have the potential to improve their self and their condition of living. I have observed across different generation very different values of hard work and personal motivation. Too many people have worked hard to improve their lives and the lives and opportunities of their children to claim that the world works against the poor. If you give a person everything they need and ask nothing in return, how can you be surprised when they continue that lifestyle. It takes no effort on their part to change. Observe that worldwide the culture of welfare as a means of existence are a hindrance to governments. What is wrong with hard work? Capitalism rewards hard work, it always has and always will.
    3. The path of nonviolence to achieve ones goals is generally preferable; Historically, more issues have been solved with force (violence) than without. Even now, somewhere on this planet the strong are oppressing the weak. To take material possessions, acquire land, or eliminate future competition force (violence) works. Intervention by outside forces has the potential to prevent larger catastrophes. I give for example events leading up to WWII starting as early as the Treaty of Versailles. While we cannot change history we may learn from it.
    A fight is not over when one person quits, both parties must agree that the fight is over or one side is unable to continue fighting and does not have the will to fight later. Likewise, a war is not over if one side is still shooting.
    I know this last point seems provocative, it is a reality of the world we live in. I think the lesson is to find a nonviolent way to prevent violence but not to back down from what is right. All people have the potential to do great things in life, to end that potential is always tragic.

    Finally I will continue to study and celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because I believe there is much to learn from him.

    P.S. I ask that any responses be thought out critical responses rather than emotional reactions. I am interested in academic discourse not opinions. Thank you.

  11. The majority in our nation seem to prefer to share cute kittens on Facebook, and share “eternal jpeg candles” for the 20 children in Newtown CT, while not sharing a single post or comment about the 100,000 children killed in Iraq. They post “support our troops” with pics of Marines with M16s, and seem to be unconcerned what those weapons do when used against other human beings. Most Americans don’t know that the entire world has a total 30 Aircraft carriers in use, and 20 of them are American. Nor are they aware that the US spent 750 billion on the military in 2011, more than the next 10 nations combined! Until we stop waving national flags, and begin waving a banner depicting the Earth – Until we begin to care about children on the other side of the globe as much as we care for our own – Until we stop fearing the “Terrorist” and realize he is our brother, and may feel terrorized by us – Until those thoughts and beliefs become commonplace – our spiritual and material demise are certain.

  12. Jesus followers flourished under the blood spilling war state of Rome and eventually brought Rome to it’s knees by martyr blood and gospel witness. I pray such a people will rise again, I believe they are stirring.

  13. Matt:

    Great illumination on a portion of King’s message in another context. He was truly a prophetic voice for our time. I am still wondering why no one else ever really picked up his torch. Jesse Jackson certainly didn’t. And the other voice that was nearly as strident, Robert Kennedy, was also silenced. King was not just an angry black man but an intellectual, thoughtful, tough orator. I take umbrage with your headline. It is a cheap device to get people to read the article, and perhaps more will. But it can just as easily annoy people as they begin reading and turn them off. Please give your readers more credit for being able to discern what is meaty content and what is fluff.
    Thanks for bringing these quotes to the forefront. Would have been great to have a few references so we can read more.

  14. Erin – I appreciate your point about the title. I do think it’s an effective hook, but I also think it accurately reflects a point I want to convey: I think there is something inherent to the nature of celebration that perpetuates our whitewashing of King (and all other prophets). I do think lament might be a much more helpful way of engaging (and fully appropriating) prophetic figures.

    Here are some links to speeches/sermons/articles, etc. I used in the piece:

    (1) http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/where_do_we_go_from_here_delivered_at_the_11th_annual_sclc_convention/

    (2) http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_remaining_awake_through_a_great_revolution/

    (3) http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/ive_been_to_the_mountaintop/

    (4) http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/showdown-nonviolence

    (5) http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/

    (6) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b80Bsw0UG-U

  15. Those are very strong words, coming from a man who is not Martin Luther King Jr. My questions are do you realize you are generalizing all Christians? Do you also know that generalizations are a part of DISCRIMINATION? Did you know that Martin Luther King Jr, fought against DISCRIMINATION for everyone? You quoted a lot of things, but what about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech? The only thing that speech is representing is EQUALITY. The MOST IMPORTANT question is WHY DOES ONE MAN HAVE TO BE DEFINED BY JUST ONE OR TWO THINGS? I COULD SAY YOUR JUST A BAD AUTHOR OR THAT YOU ARE JUST BIASED AND RACIST?



  16. Great post Matt! I thought the hook was great and a nice lead for the message. I hope you’ll write more.

  17. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that we should lament Dr King.

  18. Matt, thanks for sharing this insightful and challenging piece. If your goal was to provoke thought and discussion, you’ve clearly had success here! I am sorry that those who don’t share your views prefer to attack rather than engage in meaningful dialogue. Keep writing, and let’s hope your readers will keep thinking.

  19. One of the comments on a recent piece http://bicyclealliance.org/2013/01/21/dr-martin-luther-king-jr-s-legacy-and-bicycling-how-do-we-build-a-coalition-for-bicycle-justice/ was that his words shouldn’t be used in the context the writer chose (social justice and the role bicycling plays, particularly for people who don’t have much money or who are segregated in one way or another). It appears to be a fairly common attitude to choose what realms Dr. King “really” stood for and to keep him in a box that’s more or less comfortable and acceptable to the mainstream, instead of being inspired in new ways on issues both new and old.

  20. Thanks Matt for a well written and informative article. The headline hook was perfect and it worked for me. How dare someone suggest not celebrating Dr. King was my first thought! A true understanding of the difference between celebrating and lamenting brings out the point you were making. I found your post on RLC which referenced the original post on Spokane Faith & Values which I was previously unfamiliar with. As a Spokane resident, I appreciate the find. Thank you.

  21. You’re welcome, Gary. Glad you found it on RLC – what a small world – and that you found Spokane FAVS.

  22. It seems that racial equality, economic justice and less militarism are all in harmony with the same goal – love.

    See “Extremists For Love – President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address, Dr. MLK, Jr., Sister Souljah & Jesus”

  23. Matthew: While I agree that King’ image has been whitewashed, I have to say that your quip that his “critiques of poverty and militarism are more relevant today than his work on behalf of racial integration” leaves a bad taste in my mouth. While the legal edifice of Jim Crow died years ago, the fact remains that we are a segregated country; and it’s crystal clear that Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans face deep rooted institutional racism on a daily basis. So I have to ask, what exactly gives you, who like me is a white man, the license to proclaim that MLK’ critique of racial integration isn’t as relevant as the other issues he spoke to? I know taking on a sentence may seem nitpicky, but I think this single sentence speaks to the privilege people like you and I possess: We don’t have to worry that our race will impact us, so of course it isn’t as relevant. But that’s not the reality for many people of color in this country.

    • Thank you for this excellent point, Blaine. As you know, there are more slaves today than at any previous point in history. And many of these slaves are kept in U.S. prisons, a racialized system that has maintained Blacks in slavery. It turns out that our country did not last very long without enslaving Black people. 49% of Black men in America will be imprisoned before their 23rd birthday. So, yes, there is something unsettling about a white man such as myself who has immense privilege (and has benefited economically) because of the color of my skin downplaying MLK’s focus on racial integration and drawing attention to other issues. I do so not because I am blind to the injustice that people of color face in America, but because I want to accent the violent injustices (economic and militaristic) that America visits upon people around the globe. For these latter crimes are typically so neglected that they never appear on our radar.

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