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Martin Luther King Jr: A Lesson in Courage in the Face of Bigotry

Dr. King endured and suffered as an activist and messenger of peace, love and non-violence. But it was not in vain.

Dr. Martin Luther King burst on the national scene as the recognized leader of the Civil Rights Movement from 1955-1968, and what followed was a lifelong commitment to social, racial and human justice with relentless activism.

Dr. King helped a nation see its contradictions, inhumanity and hypocrisy in ways that have not been replicated by anyone since his assassination. Dr. King was so deeply American in his undying belief in the nation's potential to live up to the best of its ideals, he remained undeterred by the constancy of death threats -- physical, emotional and psychological abuse that he was subjected to by people who called themselves Americans. Defiantly, Dr. King exposed America’s toxic obsessions and caste systems that created the seeds of hatred, racial tensions and bigotry.

As the nation embarks on a day of observance, hopefully all of us will find our own way to honor his life. One of the ways that I've chosen to remember Dr. King involved the reading of some of his speeches and videos. As I read and looked at hours of material, I walked away in awe of his writing skills and gift of oratory.

One of the most clarifying speeches Dr. King has ever given on America’s decadence, occurred on August 31st, 1967. Dr. King was invited to speak to the National Conference of New Politics in Chicago, Illinois and he named his speech: “The Three Evils of Society”. The three evils in Dr. King’s address were: Racism, Materialism and Militarism. There are very few people who are able to unmask America’s sickness quite like Dr. King  did.

Here are some excerpts in each category that remain as relevant today, as it was 49 years ago:

Materialism: “It is this moral lag in our thing-oriented society that blinds us to the human reality around us and encourages us in the greed and exploitation which creates the sector of poverty in the midst of wealth. Again we have diluted ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice, the fact is that Capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both black and white, both here and abroad. If Negroes and poor whites do not participate in the free flow of wealth within our economy, they will forever be poor, giving their energies, their talents and their limited funds to the consumer market but reaping few benefits and services in return. The way to end poverty is to end the exploitation of the poor, ensure them a fair share of the government services and the nation’s resources. I proposed recently that a national agency be established to provide employment for everyone needing it. Nothing is more socially inexcusable than unemployment in this age.”

Racism: “As early as 1906 W. E. B Dubois prophesized that the problem of the 20th century, would be the problem of the color line, now as we stand two-thirds into this crucial period of history we know full well that racism is still that hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization. Ever since the birth of our nation, White America has had a Schizophrenic personality on the question of race, she has been torn between selves. A self in which she proudly profess the great principle of democracy and a self in which she madly practices the antithesis of democracy. This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness and ambivalence toward the Negro, causing America to take a step backwards simultaneously with every step forward on the question of Racial Justice; to be at once attracted to the Negro and repelled by him, to love and to hate him. There has never been a solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans.

The step backwards has a new name today, it is called the white backlash, but the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of black power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities. The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation. This does not imply that all White Americans are racist, far from it. Many white people have, through a deep moral compulsion fought long and hard for racial justice nor does it mean that America has made no progress in her attempt to cure the body politic of the disease of racism or that the dogma of racism has been considerably modified in recent years. However for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country, even today, is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists. Racism can well be, that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on western civilization.

Militarism: Above all, the War in Vietnam, has revealed what Senator Fulbright calls, “our nations arrogance of power”. We are arrogant in professing to be concerned about the freedom of foreign nations while not setting our own house in order. Many of our Senators and Congressmen vote joyously to appropriate billions of dollars for the War in Vietnam and many of these same Senators and Congressmen vote loudly against a Fair Housing Bill to make it possible for a Negro veteran of Vietnam to purchase a decent home. We arm Negro soldiers to kill on foreign battlefields but offer little protection for their relatives from beatings and killings in our own South. We are willing to make a Negro 100% of a citizen in Warfare but reduce him to 50% of a citizen on American soil.”

Dr. King endured and suffered as an activist and messenger of peace, love and non-violence. But it was not in vain. His work, accomplishments, analysis and assessment of the United States resulted in Dr. King becoming one of the most iconic figures in American history. As we celebrate his life, Dr. King would want us to never forget why he died and what he died for.