Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tireless campaign against segregation earned him a legacy that stands among those of the greatest American heroes. He helped force the change that guaranteed every American’s right to vote and that tore down the institutional Jim Crow system.
But it is vital to King’s commemoration to remember that his vision extended well beyond voting rights and segregation. Prior to his assassination in 1968, he initiated a second Civil Rights campaign against American militarism and endemic poverty — problems that went unsolved and remain so in our time.
Despite forcing legislation that legally ended segregation in the United States, King realized that it did little to improve the conditions of the African American community. He came to understand that segregation and disenfranchisement were actually symptoms of a much deeper and more entrenched societal problem—poverty. The focus of the next phase of King’s Civil Rights movement was aimed not only at alleviating poverty, but abolishing it entirely.
In his work, Where Do We Go From Here, he argued that the government should guarantee a livable income to every American, to ensure a decent standard of living. In his view, in order to achieve the virtuous society articulated by the Founding Fathers, Americans needed to radically alter an economic system that inherently created winners and losers.
Of course, the second Civil Rights movement didn’t achieve the same level of success as the first, and King never even lived to see the “Poor People’s March on Washington,” but the fight against poverty recently experienced a sort of revival in the current fight against wealth inequality.
The rise of figures like Bernie Sanders and the advent of a new progressive movement are evidence that Americans are beginning to recognize the threat unrestrained wealth inequality poses to their democracy. Inspired by the same values as MLK, they are demanding an end to unchecked wealth inequality and promises of decent standards of living.
The other problem King sought to resolve was American militarism abroad, particularly in Vietnam. He saw the enormous amount of military aid given to the “corrupt, inept, and unpopular” South Vietnamese dictatorship by the United States as morally appalling. Because the majority of Vietnamese had chosen the communist government of Ho Chi Minh, he believed it was the duty of the United States to respect the right of the Vietnamese to determine their own internal affairs.
In his speech titled “Beyond Vietnam,” he proposed political acceptance of the popularly-elected communist government, a total end to the American bombing campaign, and demilitarization of the surrounding region. Those proposals were not radical, unreasonable, or complex, and they can be reapplied to conflicts that tear apart our world today—namely, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Palestinian electoral decision to reject the corrupt, Western-supported PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in favor of Hamas was met with a ruthless bombing campaign by Israel. Using American-manufactured weapons, Israel unleashed its superior war machine on virtually defenseless Palestinian civilians living in the Gaza Strip. The current slaughter of Palestinians approaches the atrocities committed against the Vietnamese in its brutality.
Looking to King’s recommendations on the Vietnam War, we can use his advice to achieve peace in Palestine. By suspending its unabated military support of Israel, the U.S. practically has the power to end bombing campaigns against Gaza. Rather than supporting the unpopular and unrepresentative PLO, the United States must accept that it no longer represents the legitimate concerns of the Palestinian people. By respecting their right to self-determination, the United States will push the Israeli-Palestinian peace process considerably closer to a conclusion.
Indeed, many of the problems Martin Luther King, Jr identified before his death continue to plague the world today. He was a towering figure, but his message was quite simple. By applying the basic human qualities of respect, compassion, and understanding, the complex problems of the world suddenly become much easier to manage.
Those lessons are universal. They don’t just apply to the issues Americans faced in the 1960s. They can be exported and fit nicely to the problems we experience in our world today.
As we remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, let us remember that his message did not perish with him. It lives on in the minds and spirits of those who wish to see a peaceful, harmonious world in which all of humanity can “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”