What MLK Said About Change

By David Swanson

These are some of the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:

“The nonviolent strategy has been to dramatize the evils of our society in such a way that pressure is brought to bear against those evils by the forces of good will in the community and change is produced. The student sit-ins of 1960 are a classic illustration of this method….

“So far we have had the Constitution backing most of the demands for change, and this has made our work easier, since we could be sure that the federal courts would usually back up our demonstrations legally. Now we are approaching areas where the voice of the Constitution is not clear. We have left the realm of constitutional rights and we are entering the area of human rights.

“The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income….

“The past three years have demonstrated the power of a committed, morally sound minority to lead the nation…. Even the presence of a vital peace movement and the campus protest against the war in Vietnam can be traced back to the nonviolent action movement led by the Negro.”

King was decidedly pro-change. But these are some more of his words:

“The white establishment is skilled in flattering and cultivating emerging leaders. It presses its own image on them and finally, from imitation of manners, dress, and style of living, a deeper strain of corruption develops. This kind of Negro leader acquires the white man’s contempt for the ordinary Negro. He is often more at home with the middle-class white than he is among his own people. His language changes, his location changes, his income changes, and ultimately he changes from the representative of the Negro to the white man into the white man’s representative to the Negro. The tragedy is that too often he does not recognize what has happened to him.”

Yes, this is right-wing corporate-media color-blind hero, Martin Luther King Jr. speaking about the white man and the Negro people. He was speaking about what was, and what largely still is, not about what he dreamed might someday be.

He was for change, but not for electing just anyone who said the word, and not for letting pass the uncomfortable but necessary warning.

“A time comes,” King said, “when silence is betrayal.”

“As I have walked,” King told the crowd assembled in Riverside Church a year before his assassination, “among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

King could be imagined today asking a Senator who would claim to oppose the occupation of a distant land while funding that violence with enough wealth to remake the globe: “Why, Senator, will you not filibuster future bills to fund this occupation? Ordinary citizens are sacrificing far more than the embarrassment of attempting a legislative maneuver that might not succeed?. Why will you not use the power you now possess for the good you claim to endorse, prior to asking us to bestow still greater powers on you?”

“There is nothing wrong with power,” King actually said in his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.

“It was this misinterpretation that caused Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject the Nietzschean philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love. Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

The strongest politicians do not support the waging of war against weaker peoples. The strongest voices in the United States today oppose the occupation of Iraq, and do so out of love for the people of Iraq and the world, and do so with more than words.

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