The full, fierce legacy of Dr. King

by Rev. Liz Theoharis, Charlene Sinclair, Karenna Gore
New York Daily News
April 4, 2014

Many people know that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. died on April 4, 1968 — killed by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis. But on this day we should also celebrate a different April 4 — the day in 1967 when Dr. King gave an epic speech in New York City’s Riverside Church.

That prophecy should continue to speak to us today.

The creation of a national holiday in King’s honor was a great step forward, but we fail to fully honor to him if we reduce his legacy to a few familiar, canonized, inspirational moments and leave it at that. Recalling King’s visit to New York 47 years ago today is as important a way to remember him as he truly lived — brave, clear, visionary and relentlessly controversial.

He came to the city as the hero of one cause, and as a victor of sorts: Legal segregation was coming to an end, voting rights were more secure. The civil rights movement had achieved remarkable things.

But King was too honest to stop there. Everywhere he looked, he saw a society losing its moral compass. The Vietnam War, being fought in the name of democracy, was tarnishing the word. Despite the ambitions of President Johnson, poverty and racism were deeply rooted in American life, especially in our cities.

King originally planned to speak at Union Theological Seminary, where we now work — but the projected crowd was so big that it was moved to Riverside Church. There, they added 1,200 seats to the 2,700 pew spaces, and still an overflow line stretched around the block.

Once the reverend spoke, his words were fierce and uncompromising. King called out the United States government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He talked of the Vietnam War as part of an “edifice” that creates beggars, an “enemy of the poor” that sucked resources towards destructive ends.

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Those words are not “historic” at all. They are intensely present. They describe us and goad us. The gulf between rich and poor, substantial in King’s time, has only deepened since the recession of 2008 and the bailout of Wall Street.

In fact, in 2012, America’s rich-poor income gap became its widest since 1967, the very year King spoke those words.

Meantime, we wrestle with persistent racial divides — in economic opportunity, incarceration rates and, deeply related to both of those, education. We aren’t talking about the Deep South here: a study recently showed that New York City has the nation’s most segregated schools.

Hardly a day goes by without a news story that reveals how intact the edifice is. Monday, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that global warming has a disproportionate impact on the world’s poor, as pollution does in this country.

In his speech at Riverside, King declared a goal of ending poverty completely. He called for a “revolution in values” that would be led by a multi-racial “nonviolent army of the poor” and would be “a new and unsettling force.” And he emphatically opposed the idea that America would be an exception to a rigorous moral critique from its own people.

Today we must ask: What makes up the edifice that produces beggars? A criminal justice system that incarcerates too many, for far too long. A financial system rigged to ensconce excessive wealth in a small group while many struggle. A consumerist culture that disregards the effects of pollution and waste.

These issues are beams supporting the edifice. It is time to break the silence and do Martin Luther King’s unfinished work.

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