I have had the privilege of participating in most of the great humanizing movements of the second half of the last century: peace, labor, civil rights, black power, women’s rights, Asian-American rights and environmental justice. Each was a tremendously transformative experience, expanding my understanding of what it means to be an American and a human being, challenging me to become more visionary and creative in developing strategies to bring about radical social change.
In all of those movements, Americans found the courage to question what kind of people we were and the wisdom to change ourselves into a people offering new hope in the world. The struggles of African-Americans for full citizenship and dignity inspired more than a half-century of progressive movements in the United States and around the world. People long denied and disrespected found their voices in the struggles.
More than forty years ago, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. warned that unless we engage in a great revolution of values and overcome racism, materialism and militarism, we would be “dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight.”
That dark time has come. We face a constitutional crisis brought on by the imperial and arrogant acts of a President who has placed himself above the law and is conducting an illegal war, subverting the Constitution and willfully ignoring a planetary crisis that threatens the future of life on earth. As we are manipulated by fear and distrust, despair overcomes decency. We are losing faith in our capacity to create the world anew.
As we celebrate King’s birthday this month and commemorate the fortieth anniversary of his assassination in April, we can look to the guiding light of his vision, at the height of his awareness, before he was taken from us. It is a vision that went beyond the “I Have a Dream” speech. It is a vision of which many are unaware. Many of us have amnesia when asked to recall the fullness of his message.
In the last three years of his life, confronted by the catastrophe of the Vietnam War and urban rebellions, King recognized that “the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. We are on the wrong side of a world revolution because we refuse to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.”
“We have come to value things more than people,” he said. “Our technological development has outrun our spiritual development. We have lost our sense of community, of interconnection and participation.”
In order to get on the right side of that revolution, King said that as a nation America must undergo a radical revolution of values against the giant triad of racism, materialism and militarism.
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
The urban rebellions had also made King acutely aware of the need of young people for community and participation. “This generation,” he said, “is engaged in a cold war with the earlier generation. It is not the familiar and normal hostility of the young groping for independence. It has a new quality of bitter antagonism and confused anger which suggests basic values are being contested.
“The source of this alienation is that our society has made material growth and technological advance an end in itself, robbing people of participation, so that human beings become smaller while their works become bigger.”
The way to overcome this alienation, he said, is by changing our priorities. Instead of pursuing economic productivity, we need to expand our uniquely human powers, especially our capacity for “agape,” the love that is ready to go to any length to restore community.
This love, King insisted, is not some sentimental weakness. We can learn its practical meaning from the young people who joined the civil rights movement, who put middle-class values of wealth and careers in second place, put on overalls to work in the isolated rural South because they felt the need for more direct ways of learning that would strengthen society and themselves.
At 92, going on 93, I am fortunate to still be around to rejoice at the new energies being unleashed all across this country by the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. In his person and in his prose, Obama embodies the achievements of the great movements of the twentieth century and the hope that by building on these movements we can become the agents of change that we urgently need in our country and in the world in the twenty-first century.
The challenges before us now are not unlike those King described: ending our catastrophic occupation of Iraq, addressing global warming, rebuilding cities and industries devastated by globalization, reducing the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots. These demand huge changes, not only in our institutions but in ourselves. To become part of the solution, we, as a people, must recognize that we are a large part of the problem. To change the world, we must practice a much more active and participatory concept of American and global citizenship.
Obama can become a great President only if we become a great people. Though his image inspires us, Obama alone is not the movement for change. We have the right and the duty to create the vision that we want him to represent. Instead of projecting desired outcomes on his redemptive persona, instead of viewing ourselves solely as followers of a charismatic leader, we can and must become the leaders the nation has been looking for. This is the best way to make us less vulnerable to corporate funders and lobbyists who refract our values for private gain.
None of us can step back from the responsibility of becoming part of the solution. Because of the struggles of working people in factories and on farms, African-Americans, women, Chicanos, Native Americans and immigrants, gay people, youth and the disabled, all of us have a new “burden and responsibility.” All of us have the opportunity to create a more human, more socially conscious and more ecologically responsible nation. I cannot imagine a better way to celebrate King’s birthday and to honor his true legacy.