Dr. King's Interconnected Values

The occasion of fifty years passing since the tragic, wasteful assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., has inspired an abundance of valuable commentary on Dr. King's legacy. Chief among the points being made is that it wasn't race or civil rights per se that brought King to Memphis, but a sanitation workers strike. His decision to appear and speak on behalf of the workers was of a piece with his growing commitment to what he and others were calling the Poor People's Campaign. The logic behind the campaign was that the creation of the "beloved community" involved the seeking of justice and alleviation of suffering for all people regardless of race, religion, or any other factor. Policy components of the campaign included such concrete recommendations as "federal funding for full employment, a guaranteed annual income, anti-poverty programs, and housing for the poor." (See Dellinger, The Last March of Martin Luther King Jr.)

But beneath a commitment to these mostly-forgotten specifics was a commitment to the nurturing of new values among the American people that would make the connection between civil rights and economic justice a natural one. In fact, Dr. King perceived all of his work as a counterweight to what he called the three "evils" that constituted a "malady within the American spirit." These evils, said King, were racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.

In this powerful excerpt from King confidant Vincent Harding's dialogue with Center founder Daisaku Ikeda, America Will Be!, the two explore Dr. King's vision of a "revolution in values" that he felt could lead us to a saner, less divided society, one more just and humane as well. With this as motivation, King undertook his fatal mission to Memphis. Mitch Bogen, April 6, 2018

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IKEDA: In his anti-war speech, Dr. King was critical of the moral posture of the country. He asserted, “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” (1) Using the prior decade of U.S. foreign policy as an example, Dr. King blamed the situation on three injustices at the root of the problem.

HARDING: The three evils were racism, extreme materialism, and militarism. And during the last two years of his life, King reiterated this message. It was not surprising at all that King’s work, during what turned out to be his last years, was not limited to the issue of civil rights, not limited to a focus on the racism that denied so many Americans their civil and human rights.

He saw there was more to be done, and he proceeded to identify the “woundedness of America” in terms of the deep psychological malaise caused by materialism. King saw what the emphasis on materialism was doing to American society—it had led us to create a society with a gaping divide between those at the top and the rest of society. It virtually guaranteed the existence of poverty.

King saw that by allowing this economic gap to develop, we had created a society that was completely contrary to the “beloved community” that we all were seeking—a beloved community characterized by loving, caring relationships among all people. As the logical extension of this thought, King spoke to the issues of materialism and militarism.

IKEDA: What is particularly interesting to me is that Dr. King explicitly stated in the speech that to resolve these deeply rooted social problems, “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” (2) To bring about this “revolution of values,” Dr. King asserted that a rapid shift from a “thing-oriented society” to a “person-oriented society” (3) was essential. He astutely pointed out that giving priority to things over people gives rise to a coldhearted, ruthless society that dehumanizes people.

This transformation in our values—from a society in which things take precedence over people to one in which people take precedence over things—is the first step to peace and completely in accord with the ideals motivating our Soka Gakkai International movement for peace, culture, and education.

HARDING: King discerned that militarism is a system of thought based on the assumption that we must build our security on the insecurity of others—that we achieve our goals through the destruction of others. This assumption is mistaken. Rather, it is important that we avoid building our security on the insecurity of others. To build our happiness on the unhappiness of others is to base our lives upon an unstable foundation.

That perspective was opposed to King’s understanding of human beings as children of God. To King, being children of God meant that we do not live isolated and separate existences. Rather, it meant that, in order to create the “beloved community,” we must build a society that not only protects each person’s civil rights but also enables people to relate to one another with love and compassion.

IKEDA: The idea that our security should not be based on the insecurity of others must be the foundation on which we build a society of peaceful coexistence.

In the late 1990s, the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue published a collection of essays titled Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions. This was followed, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by Subverting Greed: Religious Perspectives on the Global Economy. In these publications, some of the world’s leading intellectuals, representing various religions and disciplines, explored how those of differing religious, cultural, and ethnic traditions can overcome hatred and redress poverty and economic injustice.

In the foreword to Subverting Greed, I emphasized that one cannot build one’s happiness on the unhappiness of others. This is a fundamental philosophical truth of human life that I have consistently stressed in my talks with young people.

Buddhism teaches, again, that the Buddha nature is inherent in all people. A fundamental precept of Buddhist teachings is to honor the dignity and worth of our fellow human beings and of all life. The key is for people to transcend their differences and earnestly strive for others’ happiness as well as their own. It is becoming increasingly urgent for people of faith to advocate building a society of peaceful coexistence founded on the principle of the sanctity of life.

Dr. King pointed out the challenges of addressing social ills—the inhumanity and low regard for the sanctity of life that permeate modern society—and transforming our values. We could say that this struggle is a struggle against the ego, the self that lacks compassion.

HARDING: In Abraham Lincoln’s terms, this is a battle between the better and worse angels of our nature. (4) The reason King was such a precious person is precisely the reason such precious people like him are often destroyed. They force us to look at the internal battle inside each of us.

Through their actions more than their words, these precious people insist that we decide what kind of human being we will be. Unfortunately, many of us are afraid that if we make such a decision, we will no longer be in control of our lives and will be forced to re-vision the way we think the world should be. So, we allow ourselves to be locked into ways of thinking and acting that drive us away from our best selves.

That fear of discovering our most compassionate, creative, and vulnerable selves was an important part of what motivated the forces that brought about King’s death. King challenged us to break away from the view that war was necessary to maintain and continue American society as we knew it at that time. The opposition was terrified of what would happen if a large number of people took King’s words seriously and began to follow a new, life-affirming path. They perceived this possibility as a dire threat to their own reality and way of life.

In the same way, in those final years, there was a great fear of King’s capacity to inspire the nation’s varied poor people to come together in Washington, D.C., and challenge our national leaders to turn from a war of imperialist power to a war against poverty. This was the original intent of the Poor People’s Campaign.

IKEDA: The Vietnam War, of course, continued after Dr. King’s speech, and the turmoil and confusion within the United States deepened. On March 31 of the following year (1968), President Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection and declared a unilateral cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam.

Then, on April 4, exactly one year after his anti-war speech, Dr. King, visiting Memphis, Tennessee, to support municipal sanitation workers striking for better working conditions, was shot by an assassin as he stood speaking with friends on his hotel balcony.

Dr. King’s assassination sent shock waves throughout the United States and around the world.

Notes

1. King, “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., James M. Washington, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), p. 240.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. From Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address, given on March 4, 1861: “the better angels of our nature.”

 

 

 

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