Martin Luther King Jr.: You Can't Leave Home In the Morning Without Being Dependent on Most of the World

This past October, at the History News Network, Simon Balto considered the many ways in which Martin Luther King Jr. is misremembered today, writing:
Within the confines of the two-party dominance of the 1950s and 60s, King rarely made any sort of appeals or grounded any struggles too deeply in a political ideology creditable to either the Republican or Democratic parties. He chose, rather, to push both parties from the left with appeals to morality, equality, human rights, and social justice—and was rewarded with palpable feelings of hatred from leaders of both parties. Indeed, from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson, King attempted to force presidential hands on matters of social equality and justice, and frustrated the ambivalent attitudes toward all of them in his efforts. Though our triumphalist and revisionist history of the civil rights era today includes a mirage depicting government actors eventually realizing the self-evident injustice of the American racial caste system, it would be more accurate to say that King, his fellow civil rights and Black Power leaders, and those at the grassroots realized the achievements that they did—with precious few exceptions— in spite of, rather than because of, those government actors . . .

The iconography of American triumph suspends King in a very particular time, place, and condition: with arms outstretched before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, leading a people down the road toward a dream rooted in American ethics and promised by American politics. Yet, omitted in this vision we perpetuate of King are his radical ideologies and condemnations of the moral failure of American government . . .

King the radical labor advocate (he was, lest we forget, assassinated while in Memphis helping the city’s sanitation workers in their demands for better pay and working conditions); King the radical anti-war critic; King the radical anti-capitalist…King the radical anything is simply not a notion that fits into how we wish to commemorate the civil rights era, for the very reason that it implies that there was—and is—more work to be done than desegregating institutions and ensuring voting rights. The radical reconstruction of American society that King saw necessary has yet to commence, and within the schema of the modern American two-party system, his ideologies are barely represented within the political discourse.
From King's speech "Beyond Vietnam," April 4, 1967:
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 . . . A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death . . . Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain."
From King's sermon "Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool", August 27, 1967, also known as "A Knock at Midnight":

And so this man was a fool because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. He was a fool because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. This man was a fool because he allowed his technology to outdistance his theology. This man was a fool because he allowed his mentality to outrun his morality. Somehow he became so involved in the means by which he lived that he couldn’t deal with the way to eternal matters. He didn’t make contributions to civil rights. He looked at suffering humanity and wasn’t concerned about it . . .

Maybe you haven’t ever thought about it, but you can’t leave home in the morning without being dependent on most of the world. You get up in the morning, and you go to the bathroom and you reach over for a sponge, and that’s even given to you by a Pacific Islander. You reach over for a towel, and that’s given to you by a turk. You reach down to pick up your soap, and that’s given to you by a Frenchman. Then after dressing, you rush to the kitchen and you decide this morning that you want to drink a little coffee; that’s poured in your cup by a South American. Or maybe this morning you prefer tea; that’s poured in your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you want cocoa this morning; that’s poured in your cup by a West African. Then you reach over to get your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning you are dependent on more than half of the world. And oh my friends, I don’t want you to forget it. No matter where you are today, somebody helped you to get there.


Donald Borsch Jr. said...


Sometimes your articles make my head hurt because I am forced to think too much. This is one of them.

I dig what your getting at, though. King, being dead, has only served to be the spokesperson for the duopoly by sheer ignorance. He's a Republican, No, he's a Democrat, No, he's______________________. Actually, King is dead. Sorry to say, shot down by an assassin. His message, even if it had any truth to it, has only been run through the ringer of politics so many times that I fear even those who were with him during the 60's wouldn't recognize it any longer.

d.eris said...

Thanks Donald. I find it fairly offensive how MLK is instrumentalized by politicians and his message sanitized by the popular media. This is not only by sheer ignorance either, imo, often it appears calculating and consciously duplicitous. But, King is dead. Long live King.