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Making Dr. King's Vision Work

by Wendell Griffen

Presented on January 18, 2016 at Henderson State University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas


Thank you for inviting me to be part of this commemoration of the life and life-changing ministry of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest prophet of social justice in the history of the United States. 

What does the vision of justice that inspired Dr. King mean for us now? In view of King’s timeless views about the meaning and imperatives of justice for our society and world, what would he see and say about the current condition of our society and world? What should we be doing today if we truly share Dr. King’s view of justice? Are our policies and practices in line with the life and ministry of that prophet? To answer those questions requires that we go beyond the “I Have A Dream” speech. We must, instead, ponder the way we are living in the light of what Dr. King said in two later, and less-well known, statements.

A year to the day before he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King delivered a speech titled Beyond Vietnam:  A Time To Break Silence during a gathering of concerned clergy and laity at Riverside Church in New York City. How many of you have read or heard that speech? How many of you have heard of it? I encourage you to find it on the Internet and read it. Dr. King uttered the following prescient statement in that address.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy-and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. … In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution.  … I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just."  …A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.  A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.[1]

Public reaction to King's words was swift and hostile. A number of editorial writers attacked him for connecting Vietnam to the civil rights movement.  The New York Times issued an editorial claiming that King had damaged the peace movement as well as the civil rights movement. Life magazine assailed the speech as "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." The Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American publication, charged King with "tragically misleading" black people. And at the White House, President Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying, "What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me? We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the War on Poverty. What more does he want?"[2]

Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee exactly one year after he delivered the speech written by Dr. Vincent Harding, a black historian and trusted friend. Despite the hostile reaction to the speech, Martin King and Vincent Harding never disavowed it. But Dr. Harding, who passed away last in 2014, always believed the speech was the reason King was murdered. “It was precisely one year to the day after this speech that that bullet which had been chasing him for a long time finally caught up with him,” Dr. Harding said in a 2010 interview. “And I am convinced that that bullet had something to do with that speech. And over the years, that’s been quite a struggle for me.”[3]

Well, I hope you’ll read Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. Now let me tell you about another, and even more sobering message you should read.

The January 1969 issue of Playboy Magazine contained a lengthy essay every American should read. This essay, titled  A Testament of Hope, was written by a preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. I have not found it in electronic form anywhere. It appears in a book titled, appropriately, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., a collection of Dr. King’s books, speeches, and interviews that was edited by James Melvin Washington.[4]

A Testament of Hope is Dr. King’s last published work. Yet I never hear preachers quote it. I never hear political leaders quote it. I never hear or read  professors and historians refer to it. How many of you have heard of it?

Dr. King insightfully and accurately characterized the state of social justice and civil rights in A Testament of Hope.

Whenever I am asked my opinion of the current state of the civil rights movement, I am forced to pause; it is not easy to describe a crisis so profound that it has caused the most powerful nation in the world to stagger in confusion and bewilderment. Today’s problems are so acute because the tragic evasions and defaults of several centuries have accumulated to disaster proportions. The luxury of a leisurely approach to urgent solutions—the ease of gradualism—was forfeited by ignoring the issues for too long. …Confronted now with the interrelated problems of war, inflation, urban decay, white backlash and a climate of violence, [the nation] is now forced to address itself to race relations and poverty, and it is tragically unprepared. What might once have been a series of separate problems now merge into a social crisis of almost stupefying complexity.[5] …

…Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation that professes itself to be democratic, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich, productive and awesomely powerful? The problem is so tenacious because, despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially. All too many Americans believe justice will unfold painlessly or that its absence for black people will be tolerated tranquilly.

…White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.

Stephen Vincent Benet had a message for both white and black Americans in the title of a story,
Freedom Is a Hard Bought Thing. When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care—each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct. Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost for this society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms. This fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past … were obtained at bargain prices. The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black public officials.

The price of progress would have been high enough at the best of times, but we are in an agonizing national crisis because a complex of profound problems has intersected in an explosive mixture. The black surge toward freedom has raised justifiable demands for racial justice in our … cities at a time when all the problems of city life have simultaneously erupted. Schools, transportation, water supply, traffic and crime would have been municipal agonies whether or not Negroes lived in our cities. The anarchy of unplanned city growth was destined to confound our confidence. What is unique to this period is our inability to arrange an order of priorities that promises solutions that are decent and just.

…If we look honestly at the realities of our national life, it is clear that we are not marching forward; we are groping and stumbling; we are divided and confused. Our moral values and our spiritual confidence sink, even as our material wealth ascends. In these trying circumstances, the black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.[6]…

…Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves on what little progress we Negroes have made. I’m sure that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day. It doesn’t matter where we are individually in the scheme of things, how near we may either to the top or to the bottom of society; the cold facts of racism slap each one of us in the face.[7] …

…When a culture begins to feel threatened by its own inadequacies, the majority of men tend to prop themselves up by artificial means, rather than dig down deep into their spiritual and cultural wellsprings. America seems to have reached this point…. I think most Americans know in their hearts that their country has been terribly wrong in its dealings with other peoples around the world. When Rome began to disintegrate from within, it turned to a strengthening of the military establishment, rather than to a correction of the corruption within the society. We are doing the same thing in this country and the result will probably be the same—unless, and here I admit to a bit of chauvinism, the black man in America can provide a new soul force for all Americans, a new expression of the American dream that need not be realized at the expense of other men around the world, but a dream of opportunity and life that can be shared with the rest of the world.[8]

A Testament of Hope is the last and best evidence we have about how Martin King saw and understood the plight of our society. Dr. King had the audacity to declare the unpleasant truth about the interrelationship of racism, classism, militarism, and materialism and the crippling effects of longstanding and studied indifference about those evils. He did so as a follower of Jesus. He did so as a Baptist preacher and pastor. But most people have not read or hear of A Testament of Hope, yet go on trying to quote (and often mis-quote) segments of the “I Have A Dream” speech as if it was Dr. King’s last will and testament.

Forty-seven years later, the evils Dr. King addressed so profoundly and prophetically have not been confronted. The Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders documented the effect of abusive law enforcement behaviors, the lack of meaningful employment opportunities, and pernicious race discrimination as factors behind the urban riots of the 1960s. Those appalling realities have not changed. Racial tension is steadily building because of the deaths of unarmed black, brown, and poor men, women, youth, and senior citizens at the hands of law enforcement officers.

As Dr. King acknowledged in A Testament of Hope, “there is no single answer to the plight of the [American black community]. Conditions and needs vary greatly in different sections of the country.”[9] However, the ongoing violence against black, brown, and poor people by agents of law enforcement is widespread. But I do not merely refer to physical violence.

We must also realize, confront, and correct the systemic injustices in our society caused by political, economic, and environmental violence.

The 2000 election debacle that involved the Supreme Court of the United States ordering an end to votes being counted in Florida was a colossal example of political violence. Voter identification laws that restrict voting based on fanciful notions of voter fraud are examples of political violence. The decision by the Supreme Court that gutted key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act is another example of political violence.

The political process is more corrupt than ever. Voters realize that although candidates ask for their votes, candidates are more concerned about the interests of the largest campaign contributors than the plight of the men, women, and children they seek to represent.

Mass incarceration is also political violence. There were fewer than 350,000 persons incarcerated in state, local, and federal jails in 1974. Today there are almost 2.3 million incarcerated persons. These political dis-enfranchised people are the victims of what Professor Michelle Alexander has correctly termed “the New Jim Crow.” Black people disproportionately are represented in this exponential increase in the number of incarcerated people.

During slavery black people were denied political power because we were considered sub-human (three-fifths of a person). After the Civil War their political power was attacked by deliberate schemes that included intimidation, outright terrorism, murder, and fraud. The Voting Rights Act was passed to address the most egregious kinds of that conduct. But the effect of so-called “war on drugs” has been to rob political power from black, poor, and other marginalized people.

Although politicians and bankers boast about the nation experiencing a modest economic recovery, black unemployment and under-employment remains at the depression level state black people have suffered for years. That economic violence affects every facet of life.

I encourage you to go online and read an article by G. William Domhoff, Professor of Sociology at University of California at Santa Cruz, titled Who Rules America: Wealth, Income, and Power.[10] Professor Domhoff shares the following information.

  • In 2006, white households had median household income (earnings from wages and salaries) of $52,600 compared to $31,600 for black households and $36,800 for Latino households.
  • In 2007, white households had median net worth (total assets, including home value, minus total debt) valued at $151,100. The median household net worth for black households was only $9,700, less than one tenth of the median household net worth of white households. The median household net worth for Latino households was slightly lower at $9,600.
  • In 2007, the median household financial wealth (non-home ownership wealth that can be immediately used to acquire other assets or investments) of white households was $45,900. It was only $600 for black households and $400 for Latino households.
  • In 2009, white households had a median income (earnings from wages and salaries) of $51,000, down $2,600 from 2006. Black median household income dropped to $30,000 (down $1,600 from 2006). Latino median household income dropped also, to $34,000 (down $2,800 from 2006).
  • In 2010, white households had a median net worth (total assets including home value minus total debt) of $97,000 (down $54,000—about a third—from 2007). Black households had a median net worth in 2010 of $4,900 (down $4,800—almost half—from 2007). Latino households had a median net worth in 2010 of $1,300 (down $8,300—almost three-fourths—from 2007).
  • In 2010, median household financial wealth (non-home wealth) was $27,700 for white households (down from $45,900 in 2007). It was only $100 for black households (down from $600—83%—in 2007), and $0 for Latino households (down from $400—100%--in 2007). 

Professor Domhoff explains the significance of these numbers in the following words:

"Black and Latino households are faring significantly worse overall, whether we are talking about income or net worth. In 2010, the average white household had almost 20 times as much total wealth as the average African-American household, and more than 70 times as much wealth as the average Latino household. If we exclude home equity from the calculations and consider only financial wealth, the ratios are more than 100:1. Extrapolating from these figures, we see that 71% of white families' wealth is in the form of their principal residence; for Blacks and Hispanics, the figures are close to 100%."   

Plainly, black households have less wealth to transfer from one generation to the next. Although these numbers give us a sense about the income and wealth disparities across racial lines in the United States they don't explain the causes.

Wealth begins with the ability to convert earnings into assets. Any fair assessment of wealth disparity between black and white people in the United States must recognize that slavery cheated black people from the opportunity to obtain earnings. People whose households have been denied opportunities to earn for centuries are less able to acquire the marketable assets that make up the foundation for obtaining and building wealth.

Black slaves had no income during slavery. They left slavery without income, education, and any other means for acquiring wealth when the Civil War ended in 1865 after having contributed to the earnings that white people used in South and in the North to acquire wealth. Poor white persons who did not own slaves but who earned wages for their work were able, by virtue of being white earners, to gain income they could use to acquire houses and build wealth which they could pass to their descendants at death.

Slaves owned no wealth to pass to their descendants, only abject poverty and a future of racist oppression. White workers have never suffered that burden.

Income, when saved, can be used to purchase homes. Home ownership is the largest asset purchase made by most earners. After slavery ended, black workers earned fewer dollars for their work than their white counterparts so black workers had fewer dollars to save toward acquiring land and houses. Instead, black families spent more of their meager earnings for consumption items such as food and clothing.

Most black people were concentrated in the rural South until the northern migration during the early and mid-twentieth century. Wages were low and opportunities to acquire property were limited for black people in the post-Reconstruction South. When blacks moved to the industrial cities of the North and Midwest during the twentieth century, opportunities to purchase houses were severely limited by racially segregated housing patterns. Banks and other lending institutions often refused to finance mortgages in black neighborhoods. 

Even when blacks were able to purchase housing their opportunities to market their houses at appreciating prices were limited because of segregation. Consequently, blacks were substantially less able to build net worth through increased equity in their homes than were whites.

Substandard earning power, legalized discrimination that affected opportunities to acquire and homes and market them profitably, race discrimination in public education, employment, and other forms of injustice have deprived black families from having equal opportunity to acquire and build wealth. The history of that inequality is the necessary starting point for any honest understanding and discussion about the wealth disparity in the United States between white and black people. Black household income has never been equal to that of white households. Black opportunities for education, employment, and wealth acquisition have never been equal.

And as Professor Domhoff correctly observes, nonwhite households are affected worse than white households when the U.S. economy struggles. White household median wealth dropped a third in the recent recession. Median black household wealth plummeted by almost half.  Latino household wealth practically evaporated. Hard work alone doesn't correct those disparities. That reality, while inconvenient or unpopular to accept, is nevertheless true.

Public policy in the United States has never attempted to redress historical wealth disparities between white and nonwhite persons, but has instead systematically and consistently worsened or ignored them. President Andrew Johnson made sure that black slaves didn't receive "forty acres and a mule" after the Civil War. When Rutherford B. Hayes became president of the nation less than a generation after the Civil War ended, the former slaves were left to the worse vices of southern white supremacy as white southerners immediately pursued violent and pernicious assaults against black attempts at self-advancement lasting throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and for two-thirds of the twentieth century. 

Black businesses were intentionally destroyed in many places across the United States by violent perpetrators. In most cases, local, state, and federal authorities did little or nothing to bring the perpetrators of that violence to justice, let alone see that the black victims of it were made whole. White armed terrorists destroyed the black business district of Tulsa, Oklahoma (Tulsa's Black Wall Street). 

Race discrimination in education, employment, political participation, business development, and public accommodation has been public policy in the United States longer than government policies on equal opportunity in areas of life related to earning power and wealth acquisition. Societal complicity in and sponsorship of race-based violence against black aspirations to acquire and build wealth has never been even admitted by public policymakers.

Despite all the proof about state-sponsored slavery, Jim Crow segregation, race discrimination, and the clear evidence that these injustices have contributed to disparities between white and black households in wealth acquisition, no local, state, or national policies have ever been seriously attempted to address those disparities. Dr. King, like Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before him, denounced economic violence. Unfortunately, there is little evidence we have been inspired by their example to confront that evil in our time and how it operates to torment so many people.

In conclusion, our challenge is to Make Dr. King’s Vision Work!  We must quit genuflecting and making testimonials about the “I Have A Dream” speech, and put our hearts and minds to work, across racial, religious, income, regional, and other lines.  We must learn to speak and listen to uncomfortable truth. We must learn to sacrifice together for the good of all. Those who are privileged must use their power and influence to help those who suffer. We must shift our priorities from profits and property to people. We must become agents of radical change if we want our reality to change.

Becoming agents of radical change will begin when we quit talking about, reciting, and re-playing the “I Have A Dream” speech as if it was the last and best thing Dr. King said. Dreams that are simply repeated for more than half a century are mere fantasies. People who believe that repeating any dream over time will make it come true are either fools are insane.

Then we must resolve to do the hard work of speaking and listening to inconvenient and uncomfortable truth. We do not need more “Kum Ba Yah” moments where we gather, hold hands, sing “We Shall Overcome” and then continue thinking and doing what we have always thought and done. Radical and systemic change requires radically different thinking and conduct from each of us. Those who resist that approach signal they want things to remain as they are, no matter how much they quote Dr. King, sway while singing “We Shall Overcome,” and talk about wanting things to get better.

Like Dr. King, I believe in hope. Dr. King’s last published statement was not “I Have a Dream,” but A Testament of Hope. If we expect our society and world to achieve the benefits of Dr. King’s hope, we must begin by knowing what Dr. King declared in A Testament of Hope. Heirs cannot inherit bequests left by a last will and testament they fail to read, let alone refuse to follow.

I believe in hope. Therefore, I reject the idea that we cannot be better than we are. But we will never be better while content to maintain the longstanding systems of inequality caused by the evils of racism, sexism, classism, militarism, materialism, and techno-centrism. If Dr. King’s vision of a just and peaceful society for all persons is to come true, we must put it to work as agents of radical change.

Thank you for allowing me to challenge you with that opportunity today. I hope you will accept the challenge.

[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence is among the writings of Dr. King compiled by James Melvin Washington and published under the title A Testament of Hope:  The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1986).
[2] For reactions to Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence see
[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., [James Melvin Washington, ed.], Harper and Row, San Francisco, (1986 )
[5] A Testament of Hope, supra, p. 313.
[6] A Testament of Hope, p. 314-15.
[7] A Testament of Hope, supra, p. 321-22.
[8] A Testament of Hope, supra, p. 323.
[9] A Testament of Hope, supra, p. 325.

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