When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968, a Harris Poll found he had a public disapproval rating of almost 75%. Now, on this national holiday to commemorate the civil rights leader's birthday, it's easy to focus on King's easily palatable quotes that preach unity and understanding. While this was a part of his platform, his more radical ideas are often ignored today—the very same ideas that made him unpopular at the time and which many believe led to his assassination. In the last years of his life, King brought what we might now call "intersectionality" to the Civil Rights movement. He argued that racism, economic inequality, and militarism were linked, and that these "evil triplets" had poisoned the soul of the country. As an antidote, he supported unions, reparations, universal income, a jobs guarantee, and a Poor People's Campaign that cut across racial lines and was gearing up to occupy Washington at the time of his death. Perhaps most boldly of all, he publicly defied President Lyndon Johnson, his sometime ally in the civil rights movement. In a speech given at the Riverside Church in New York a year to the day before he was killed, Dr. King came out forcefully against the war in Vietnam, which he saw as the convergence of all the grotesque hypocrisies that sickened America: "We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor ... For those who ask the question, 'Aren’t you a civil rights leader?' and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: 'To save the soul of America.' We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way, we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier: 'O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!' ... To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?" On this MLK day, let's remember the "radical" King, the one who dared to join black, white, and brown together in common cause against tyrannies and injustices that affected them all.
This Christmas, we're looking back on the sermon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave on Christmas Eve more than 50 years ago. Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, the speech asks us to reflect on the true meaning of "peace on earth, goodwill towards men."
"This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and goodwill toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. If we don’t have goodwill toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments and our own power."
Listen to the full speech here: