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Dr. King Fought Segregation With Principles Needed Now to Break Bonds of Poverty

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As I reflect this month on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. it is sobering to realize that half of the Americans now living were not yet politically aware in 1968 when King was assassinated. Many students in our colleges were not yet born. For them, King and the history-changing civil-rights movement he represented must seem as remote as Gen. John Pershing and World War I, or Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

So it is all the more important that we regularly revisit King’s movement, and remember the thousands of people, sung and unsung, who put their lives on the line for it.

When King and I met, the movement had hardly begun; he was 21 and I was 18. We remained close friends and associates throughout those turbulent times and until his death. I think of the genius of King’s life, to paraphrase Paul Horgan, as one that “gives us both large traits and intimate details. In a person like him we find not just him or ourselves, but the fugitive realities of an entire era, the common vision of all times.”

Though rooted throughout in deep religious conviction, King’s perspective underwent, between 1963 and 1968, enormous refinement and sharpening. Scholars have rightly described this evolution, with different resonances, as “the radicalization of Martin Luther King.” In the five or so years preceding his death, King was a man in the midst of a major personal, political and philosophical transition. He was moving toward the heart of his vision, which had to do with human justice as the key to any enduring “beloved community.”

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There are 10 lessons that I learned through my personal involvement in the civil-rights movement of the ‘50s through the ‘70s--a movement that concerned itself preeminently with justice, peace and social transformation--the like of which we will probably not experience again in our lifetimes. And I learned them most through my friendship, my personal and public association with Martin Luther King.

--King impressed upon me the crucial power of coalitions. He repeatedly addressed “black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, old and young, men and women, the community of all those who seek justice and believe in equity, particularly the community of the oppressed.” The base-line conditions for coalition are present in America today. Twenty-nine million blacks, 19 million Latinos, 123 million women and girls, 35 million people with physical or mental disabilities, 8 to 10 million Americans below the poverty line. These are the raw materials for recovery of coalition, a rainbow indeed, one that is “particularly the community of the oppressed.”

--I learned through King the inescapability of social interrelatedness. “Whatever affects one directly,” he used to say, “affects us all indirectly.” In talking about a civil or human-rights movement, we are talking about the national interest, not, as some who want to contain and curtail the movement suggest, a “special interest.”

--I became powerfully aware of what King called the world’s three great scourges, poverty, racism and war, which are still society’s most pressing concerns.

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--King elevated the concept of nonviolence to far more than a strategy; through him, I learned that nonviolence can be a religious commitment, a strategy and a tactic. Listen to him on the self-defeating character of violence:

“It is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the hater but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

--Working with King, I became aware of and embroiled in a number of vital issues: reform versus revolution, the relation between men and women, the nature of leadership, competition versus cooperation, isolation versus collaboration. Those issues remain vividly, urgently alive today.

--King’s movement was one of extraordinary power and persistence, and I and others learned that it was the seed-bed, the beginning place of a succession of movements: the women’s movement, the anti-war/anti-nuclear peace movement, the consumer movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, the movement for children.

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--It is less important how we interpret King’s movement than how we align ourselves toward its goals. By 1968 the goals were clear, and they are as challenging and pertinent now as then: to redistribute wealth and political power in America so that food, clothing, shelter, medical care, jobs, education and hope are available to those who need them; to turn away from purely military solutions to problems and challenges in foreign relations; to transform society worldwide--to move from disfranchisement, discrimination and pervasive powerlessness to enfranchisement, self-worth and political effectiveness.

--I learned that each phase of a movement has a set of presenting issues, and that it is possible to resolve at least some of them. At the beginning of the civil-rights movement, the presenting issue was segregation. Now, nearly 30 years later, the issue is persistent poverty, which has created a two-tiered society in America that condemns many people to lifelong bondage in an underclass.

--King taught me the power and indispensability of courageous, prophetic leaders who are able to call us beyond ourselves: people of subtle mind and unswerving moral responsibility. We need people who are willing to expose the truth of their souls in public so that others of us, less brave, may find the courage and inspiration to dream.

--Finally, I have learned that darkness and defeat for the cause of justice are not the final word. King loved to preach on the text, “Weeping may endure the night, but joy comes in the morning.” The prayer that King’s life offered is far from fully answered, and much remains to be done before his dreams become a reality. Every day--not just Martin Luther King’s birthday--provides us the opportunity for such commitment.

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