Martin Luther King Jr. has been a role model for me for most of my adult life. But like many people, until I learned more about him and his work, I only had a superficial perception of who he was.
King did more than call for racial justice, crucial as that is. He was a prophetic leader calling for a “revolution of values” to achieve the Beloved Community. He took moral stands that challenged social and economic norms and condemned our government’s violence and militarism at home and abroad. He combined this moral vision with the practice of nonviolent action, which helped create a powerful mass movement whose renewal is desperately needed today.
Throughout his life, King held true to a vision of justice and nonviolence, growing in his truth-seeking, expanding his focus from racial justice to economic justice and poverty and militarism. He saw that “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Though some discounted him as an idealist, he preached that we “must bring together tough-mindedness and tenderheartedness, if we are to move creatively toward the goal of freedom and justice.”
He inspired activism and saw that one “who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.”
King’s message is as important now as during his lifetime. When he was alive, he asked whether we would be extremists for hate or love. For injustice or the expansion of justice. Unfortunately, today we see too many being soft-minded and hardhearted, looking for simplistic answers to complex problems. Too many are finding others to blame for society’s problems and embracing scapegoating and hate toward marginalized groups — immigrants, Muslims, refugees, people of color, LGBTQ, the poor.
The growth of the alt-right, scapegoating and xenophobia are in part products of successful “divide and conquer” strategies used by ruling elites throughout history. And today government at the national, state and even local levels too often serve the interests of wealth and power at the expense of the rest of us.
King taught that hate cannot drive out hate. The response to this challenge is love and action. Each of us must look within and decide what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be passive and help perpetrate injustice, or will we be extremists for love and justice? Will we allow ourselves to be divided by fear, or find common cause with those different from ourselves? Not only is it morally the response we must make, but it is also in our own interest. For as King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. … Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
We can work together and renew the justice movement and continue the legacy of King. We can, together, progress toward a just world in which all people live with respect and dignity.
Local peace activist Ira Harritt is the Kansas City program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee.