MLK Day Special: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in His Own Words + Article by Gus Speth & Phil Thompson, The Nation (2016)

Democracy Now! Jan 17, 2022

The following is from Gus Speth and Phil Thompson,

“A Radical Alliance of Black and Green Could Save the World,” The Nation, April 14, 2016

The modern civil-rights movement had its origins in black advocacy before the Civil War, when radical activists called for a fundamental reordering of American society, beginning with its values. Martin Luther King Jr. turned increasingly to these broader issues in his later years. In his last presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, King called upon his followers to “honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are 40 million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Shortly after this address, King launched the Poor People’s Campaign.

Recently, Cornel West has brought together a remarkable collection of King’s speeches and writings. In his book The Radical King, West notes that later in his career, “King’s dream of a more free and democratic America and world had morphed into, in his words, ‘a nightmare.’… He called America a ‘sick society.’ At one point, King cried out in despair, ‘I have found out that all that I have been doing in trying to correct this system in America has been in vain. I am trying to get at the roots of it to see just what ought to be done. The whole thing will have to be done away with…. Are we integrating into a burning house?’” The last years of King’s life were devoted to reviving the radical roots of the civil-rights movement—and his own.

There is something profoundly hopeful in these calls to rediscover the civil-rights movement’s radical roots. Though they’re important in their own right, they are also important for environmentalists and the future of the environmental movement, and for progressivism generally.

Of course, the black struggle in America includes many strong currents of radical thought and action, more than in the environmental movement. Still, their shared roots are apparent, and the best traditions of both movements are very much aligned. Both see the origin of our country’s problems in the system as a whole: in capitalism and the values and institutions that support it. As King said, the whole edifice needs restructuring. The operating system by which we live and work is programmed for the wrong results, and it needs to be reprogrammed so that it genuinely sustains and restores human and natural communities. This task is daunting, but it is also rich with opportunity as a powerful basis for dialogue and collaboration between two of our country’s greatest social movements—one that holds the potential for a common language, a common critique, and a common agenda.

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