Which MLK do we honor?

Another Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and hence another opportunity to put the optimistically visionary civil rights leader of August 1963 front and center.  This is the King we love to celebrate, indeed venerate, every year, inspiring countless school kids to recite stirring lines about an America where character, not color, counts.

But what about the more mature Dr. King of just a few years later, who came to doubt the capacity of the country he so loved to rise, in its current state of mind, soul, and system, to the challenge of “the dream”?  By 1967, King had come to temper his earlier optimism with what he called “solid realism.”

In two 1967 speeches, one at Stanford University and the other at New York’s Riverside Church, King excoriated too many white Americans for being “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.”  He further took the controversial and movement-splitting step of declaring solidarity with the poor peoples of the world – most notably Vietnamese peasants (including untold numbers of children) and workers – against the murderous brutality of U.S. imperialist warmaking.  Blasting the triple evils of “racism, war, and poverty,” he called out the U.S as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Looking beyond the horror of Vietnam alone, King insisted that in the age of mechanized death, culminating in the proliferation of nuclear weapons, a decision for non-violence over violence was never more rationally compelling.  The way of violence had only one predictable outcome – annihilation, a monstrous sin against God’s creation.

A year later, a yet-young but mature King would be martyred for the cause of justice he tirelessly sought: When assassinated in Memphis, he was there to support a garbage workers strike, and in the midst of planning a national poor people’s campaign.

Rev. King was right in 1967, and he is arguably even more right today.

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