Stop celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.

Stop Celebrating MLK1
Last month America engaged in its annual ritual of misremembering Martin Luther King, Jr. Although Rev. Dr. King often indicted what he called the “triple evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism,” America chiefly associates King with only one of these ills; our predominant picture of King is as an opponent of racial segregation.

But this image is a distortion. For in the last few years of his life, King increasingly aimed his prophetic critique at the twin “evils” of poverty and America’s militarism.

Efforts to help poor people led King to be in Memphis on the day of his assassination. He was there to join a strike of 1,300 sanitation workers seeking better working conditions, higher wages, and the right to join a union.

King raised troubling questions about an economic system that perpetuates poverty. In an August 1967 speech (“Where Do We Go from Here”) — eight months before he was killed — he declared:

“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.”

The Memphis sanitation strike was a part of the “Poor People’s Campaign,” which King began to organize in the last months of his life. This campaign would shift the primary focus of the Civil Rights Movement to the economic concerns of “poor people of all colors.” The campaign would seek, among other things, to secure poor people with jobs that paid a fair wage, unemployment insurance, and education. The campaign’s goals died along with King.

Related: Do You Hear the People Sing? M.L. King and Les Misérables’ case for a Socialism of Grace by Jarrod McKenna

The week before he was killed King gave a speech (“Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution”) in which he offered an alternative economic proposal:

“. . . we spend in America millions of dollars a day to store surplus food, and I said to myself, ‘I know where we can store that food free of charge — in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night.’ And maybe we spend far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding.”

In his final speech, King returned to poverty. Although most clips of his “mountaintop” speech feature the foreshadowing of his death (“I may not get there with you …”), King’s primary aim was to motivate people to support the striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Quoting Luke’s gospel, King maintained:

“Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me,’ and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”

“It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.”

Restructuring society would require concrete economic changes, and King made these clear. He instructed the audience to stop purchasing Coca-Cola and Wonder Bread. He called for a “bank-in” movement, advising financial withdrawals from downtown Memphis banks and insurance companies.

King’s final statement on poverty appeared 12 days after his assassination in a Look magazine article, “Showdown for Nonviolence.” The same non-violent demonstrations used to fight segregation, King argued, should now be organized to address “the economic problem — the right to live, to have a job and income …” King called for an “Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” that would “guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work” and an “income for all who are not able to work.”

Economic justice, it seems, surpassed racial equality as King’s chief concern.

“The economic question is the most crucial that black people, and poor people generally, are confronting.”

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In the last year of his life, King also devoted increasing attention to critiquing America’s use of violence in Vietnam. Speaking at New York’s Riverside Church — one year to the day before he was killed — King described the incongruity between his preaching and America’s practices:

“As I have walked 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.”

King suggested that a commitment to the world’s most vulnerable members should prevail over patriotism:

“This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy . . .”

King viewed America’s devotion to war in religious terms:

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Twenty-six days later, King again spoke out on Vietnam in a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. He described America’s hypocritical responses to his messages of non-violence.

“There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, ‘Be non-violent toward Jim Clark,’ but will curse and damn you when you say, ‘Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children.’ There’s something wrong with that press!”

Remembering King primarily for his struggle against segregation is to misremember him. (America does with King what the Church has done to Jesus: remade him in our own image.) Domesticating and sterilizing King is the only way to integrate him into our national consciousness. The unlikely alternative would be to question two of America’s sacred engines: its economy and military. Ironically, King’s critiques of poverty and militarism are more relevant today than his work on behalf of racial integration.

To honor King, we need to stop celebrating him. Perhaps the very nature of celebration makes distortion inevitable. A National Day of Lamenting King would be more fitting, and helpful in calling to mind the ways we betray two fundamental aspects of his legacy.

**This article originally appeared on Spokane Faith & Values

Matthew S. Rindge is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. He is currently writing “Cinematic Parables: Subverting the Religion of the American Dream.”

Photo Credit: Daniel M. Silva /

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About the Author

Matt Rindge

Matt RindgeDr. Matthew Rindge is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. Follow him on Twitter @MattRindgeView all posts by Matt Rindge →

  • Tough message. I am a Christian from what has been called the evan-jellyfish tradition. God knows: I am trying hard not to be a socialist, but my experience of continued injustices for the poor and voiceless, and the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor is leading me from a settled life of quiet pew-dwelling into I know not what.

    It is time to reawaken Christian voices (and willing hands) in support for those who continue to be sidelined. I applaud Mr King and his legacy for what he has done fighting racism, but I agree, it’s time to speak up across the Western churches and work for changes that fight the evils of poverty and warmongering.

  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Rules for Marchers:

    1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus. As Christians we should always do this

    2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory. Jesus came for us all… we wrestle not against principalities and powers

    3. Walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love.

    4. Pray daily to be used by God that all men might be free. Jesus sets us free.

    5. Sacrifice personal wishes that all men might be free. What good does it do to gain the world yet lose our souls?

    6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

    7. Seek to perform regular service for others and the world.

    8. Refrain from violence in fist, tongue, and heart. We can do a lot of damage to people even by gossiping.

    9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

    10. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on demonstrations.

  • Shgrace5

    Very challenging post. A great reminder and education of King’s Kingdom vision for the world.

  • I find this article rather silly. First of all, the fact that MLK is remembered and honored by American society for even one thing – and especially for fighting racism and promoting equality – is a good thing. Racism is the ultimate American sin, and we need to be reminded of how it once consumed our land and how it can still return if we let our guard down. The legacy of MLK should not be lightly discarded for this reason alone. Secondly, the article seems to be written from a 1960’s world view. The militarism that King fought against was the cold war imperialism of the Viet Nam era. We face different foes today, and the world has different challenges. We should always be wary of militarism, but one of the first task of any nation or government is to defend it citizens. Three, it has a very naive view of economics that again is captured in 1960’s rhetoric. As bad as captialism is, no one has yet to invent a better system that provides as much prosperity AND freedom at the same time to as many people. A utopian call for socialism disregards the fact that socialism needs an economic engine behind it to produce the wealth to distribute to others. All attempts to create a centralized statist economy have resulted in universal misery. At least I have never heard of one that is celebrated as a beacon of success that can be duplicated elsewhere. We have much to learn from Dr. King and we need to preserve as much of his legacy as possible. What we have is we too limited, as this article legitimately points out. Let’s celebrate gleefully what we have and work to expand it. At the same time we must realize that if King had lived longer, or was still with us today, his thinking would have evolved with the times and he would have had to apply his universal principles in different ways today.

    • 22044

      In 1980, Ronald Reagan supported unions. He was correct, for 1980. In 2013, unions are less about the dignity of work & workers, and more about promoting union leaders’ interests with little or no accountability or responsibility to workers and customers. We must understand how things are changing.
      If MLK was alive today, I think he would be involved in advocating for expanded educational opportunities for children. For us who would like to carry on his legacy, that’s an issue that definitely needs attention.

      • Frank

        He would also fight the civil war fight of our time: abortion.

        • 22044

          I agree with that too.

        • SamHamilton

          I don’t know if he would. There’s no indication that he wouldn’t take the position of “I’m personally opposed, but it should be legal.”

          • Frank

            The legality of abortion and fighting to stop it are not necessarily linked. In my view the path is not to over turn Roe v Wade but to make it irrelevant. Not to make abortion illegal just very difficult to get. That’s something we can do. Support every local pro-life legislation and locally vote in only pro-life candidates. We have and can continue to make a difference! Spread the word!

          • SamHamilton

            That is all true, but I still don’t see any indication that MLK would adopt this cause.

          • Frank

            I find it hard to believe that you could honestly believe that given who he was, what he said and what he did. Sadly he is not here to she’d light although his wife and kids have publicly said he would have fought against abortion.

          • William Prince

            Fighting against abortion and fighting to make it illegal are two different things–or at least they can be and should be.

          • 22044

            Maybe not, but since he was guided by his faith and understood civil rights as being connected to natural rights, he might give speeches or interviews that affirm the pro-life position.
            His niece is doing that kind of work today.

          • Wonder

            Why not work on making it less necessary? The day anti-abortion activists quit lobbying against realistic sex education & contraception access, and begin to organize in support of, (among other things)living wages, quality child care, and prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault is the day I’ll believe the so-called “pro-life” movement has any agenda beyond asserting that women should know their place and keep to it.

            I doubt Dr. King would be anxious to uphold such a legacy

          • Frank

            We must stop the killing as soon as possible, Those lives are on all of our heads. Over 21,000 killed this week alone. Lives are at stake and cannot wait while we fix our social and economic issues.

          • Wonder

            If you mean the killing of women by their abusive partners, I’m on board. Homicide is the #1 cause of death for pregnant women.

          • William Prince

            You’re right. We should stop the killing, but there are ways to accomplish that without using the law to do it. We must leave the “wall of separation between church and state” intact. To do otherwise is dangerous and frightening.

          • 22044

            Will you support a free enterprise system with fair regulations? That is the best system for getting the outcomes you proposed.

          • Wonder

            If by “free enterprise” you mean dismantling what’s left of The existing safety net, no. That. Would be counterproductive. if however you mean fair regulations like paid maternity/paternity/ sick leave, prohibiting discrimination against parents, that sort of thing, I think that would help.

          • 22044

            Free enterprise means that businesses are free to start, compete, & expand, without concern for how to manage cumbersome & discriminatory regulations (i.e. discrimination against or for industries or big companies). It’s not related to discussing a safety net or guaranteed benefits.
            The best examples that come to mind at the moment: Texas & North Dakota.

          • William Prince

            Right. Most pro-lifers aren’t really pro-life. They’re merely pro-birth. Once the baby is breathing air like the rest of us, they couldn’t care less if it’s fed, clothed, and educated.

          • William Prince

            I agree. As the president told John McCain in their second debate, “No one is pro-abortion.” Pro-life and pro-choice aren’t mutually exclusive; a lot of people are both. Fighting to end abortion is a good thing, but jumping over that “wall of separation between church and state” is a decidedly BAD thing. We shouldn’t attempt to use the law to compensate for our evangelical failures.

      • SamHamilton

        Good points. According to this article, the Poor People’s Campaign was to include education as a priority. I don’t know what position MLK would have taken on the various reform proposals that are out there, but hopefully he would not have stood with the failing status quo.

    • Would you also suggest that if Jesus had lived longer, or was still with us today, his thinking would have evolved with the times and he would have had to apply his universal principles in different ways today? Oh ya, Jesus is still with us today! …and his words are as applicable and relevant today as they were two thousand years ago, even in these much different times. In the same manner, the principles MLK preached are applicable today as well, even in these much different times. The article is far from silly. I found it to be thought provoking and informative and an excellent reminder of some of the other things MLK stood for and preached beyond what the popular opinions want him to be remembered for. In no way do I mean to dismiss or demote the horrible sin of racism in this nation, but I disagree that racism is the “ulitmate” American sin. In my opinion greed is the sin that plagues this nation. Greed is the primary reason capitalism fails. I share your opinion that we have much to learn from Dr. King, as we also do from Jesus and His teachings.

      • I think you fall short of it all comparing Jesus to MLK

        • William Prince

          “Comparing Jesus to MLK” isn’t saying that MLK is equal to Jesus. We all know that’s not true, and there’s no reason to be offended by the analogy.

    • bluecenterlight

      People always seem to think they live in more complicated times than previous generations. Men are simple creatures, we are not that complicated.

  • The worst part of it all is that when we ignore the other things that King stood for, we open the door for people to claim that King would support things that he explicitly never stood for.

    • Frank

      He was a Baptist minister. That alone gives us clues as to what he would or would not support.

      • Indeed – but even better, we have his actual words. It’s just that, as Matt mentioned, we often ignore the bits that didn’t deal with civil rights, which makes it easier for people to claim that King would have supported things that he never would have supported.

        • Frank

          Not to mention he was an adulterer. We all have our sins however but it’s good to know that even despite our sins we can have an impact,

  • This is the most shallow, sensationalistic RLC article I have seen. The answer to the misrepresentation of MLK is not to stop celebrating him, but to reclaim his memory and celebrate him for the right reasons.

    • I think you got the point but missed the irony. Yes, the article headline was obviously an intentional missdirection that probably caused you to read it…it did for me. The substance was, as you said, reclaim or focus on his memory and what he stood for. Celebrating versus lamenting as the article suggests is a huge difference. Oh yeah, you must not have read much on RLC, as this isn’t even close on the sensational scale!

      • SamHamilton

        I agree. Those recent Frank Schaffer rants were way worse.

        I thought Rindge had some good points here though – that we shouldn’t forget that MLK had things to say on issues other than civil rights for African Americans. Not that all King’s ideas were good or effective policy ideas, but we should at least consider them if we’re going to celebrate him.

  • SamHamilton

    Is it not possible, though, to celebrate the aspects of MLK’s vision for our society that one thinks are worthy and not celebrate those aspects of his vision that one doesn’t think are worthy? We celebrate other people without being reprimanded for not agreeing with every single thing they advocated. Jesus is the only person Christians should celebrate in full, because He was flawless.

    • Mike

      Nope. He saw all of these issues as interconnected.

      • SamHamilton

        That doesn’t mean we have to though. And it doesn’t mean we have to agree with every solution he proposed.

        • Wonder

          Heaven forbid one acknowledge he might have been right.

          • SamHamilton

            Why can’t we acknowledge that? We sure can, and people do all the time. But it’s not required of us. What I’m saying is that MLK is not God. What he said and advocated for is not holy writ. It’s up for debate just like every other human opinion and belief. There’s nothing wrong with someone saying “I agree with MLK when he said X and I’m going to celebrate and promote that, but I disagree with MLK when he said Y, so I’m not going to celebrate and promote that aspect of his worldview.

          • Wonder

            No, MLK is not God. neither was he a saint. And ‘canonizing’ him as the Patron Saint of Black Civil Rights is a lot more convenient than taking a holistic look at his work, especially his later work on behalf of poor people of all colors.

            Dr. King sure is a lot easier to deal with dead than alive, isn’t he, we can all theorize about what he ‘would say’ about our current pet issues, rather than look at what he DID say about the ones that remain with us

    • 22044

      I agree! We’re still here, so we are the ones to assess what a better society might be.

  • Margie Hearron

    I usually really like RLC articles, but this one is stupid and disrespectful to Black Americans. I will celebrate Dr. King for helping my people to have freedom. And helping my people to not hate my people. Some of us know that Dr. King fought for many injustices and many of them revolved around racial equality. I have no issue with celebrating Dr. King for his fight for racial equality for all people. So, yes, this article is a travesty. What the heck was the author thinking?? I’m a multi-racial American. I love all the thinks that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for. He wasn’t a perfect man but he wasn’t afraid to raise his voice for Freedom and Justice.

    • Jonathan Starkey

      Semantic boundary, people can’t get over the title of the article to listen to the article. That’s the only travesty.

      • Margie Hearron

        I read the article and I did NOT care for it. It was disrespectful to Blacks and to the memory and legacy of Dr. King. I stand by what I said.

        • jerard

          Exactly, just because you agree with Dr. King’s stance on racial issues and not on other issues does not mean that you are demeaning his message on racial issues. That would be like saying if you like Nixon’s stance on foreign policy with China you must support his stance on Vietnam and other policies. That makes no sense at all.

          • Margie Hearron

            I don’t disagree with helping the poor around the world and in the USA. I don’t disagree with fighting for injustice everywhere. I only disagree with the article because it gives the impression that what Dr. King did for civil rights is less important than what he said about poverty and injustice. I have rights today because of what Dr. King fought for in his life. I’m proud of the achievements of King and many other Black Americans that fought for equal rights. I will not lament. I will celebrate the legacy of those that fought for equality. I will always care about the poor and the oppressed. I don’t have to choose one or the other.

      • William Prince

        You know–that’s really condescending. I read the whole article, and the fact that I didn’t like it has little to do with the title. You shouldn’t assume that anyone who disagrees with you is stupid.

  • Jonathan Starkey

    That was good!

  • Jonathan Starkey

    The responses to this article remind me of Tony Compolo’s teaching on semantic barriers/boundaries.

    His Famous quote:

    I have three things I’d like to say
    today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of
    starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you
    don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact
    that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

    Some people are so upset that the author said to “Stop celebrating MLK” That they could no longer listen to whatever was being written next., and if they part way listened they were still tainted by it.

    I actually forgot about the headline, about 3 sentences into the article, because it really said something.

    Not to boast in myself.

    • SamHamilton

      The only commenters who responded as if they’d only read the title were Margie and John Bailey. You addressed Margie, and Gary addressed John on this matter. Most of the commenters got what the author was saying.

      • Jonathan Starkey

        Thanks Sam.

        • Jonathan Starkey

          For scouting that out.

      • I read the entire piece. I didn’t like it. I have that right to not like it. God bless.

  • Buck

    I do not think a lot about MLK, or Ronald Reagan, or Abe Lincoln. Does that sound bad?

    • SamHamilton

      No. It’s pretty normal.

    • William Prince


  • People forget what the Messiah told his apostles, that the poor will always be with you, yet you believe the opposite, Why are you focoused on this world? he told you to to seek the kingdom of Yahweh, and all those other things will be added to you, but as a people we keep bringing the worldly mind unto him,Have you forgot who is the God of this world? who the people are following? 1 John 3:4, sums it up, until the scales are removed from they eyes of the people, they will continue to serve the Beast.

  • Quoi de neuf/ What is new ??? Le chemin de la LIBERTE- EGALITE-
    FRATERNITE/ The path to FREEDOM- EQUALITY- BROTHERHOOD in preserving History-
    honoring Excellence- connecting Generations.

    Le Lancement de la 22e édition du Mois de l’histoire des Noirs de
    Montréal pour PRESERVER l’Histoire- HONORER l’Excellence- CONNECTER les Générations

    To God we are giving the GLORY for the things He
    has done!!! Nous rendons Gloire a Dieu pour ses bienfaits!!!

    Psaumes 103 :

    6 L’Éternel fait justice, Il fait droit à tous les

    (The LORD works righteousness; does justice for
    all who are oppressed.)

    BLACK HISTORY MONTH: our ROOTS reveal our PRESENT which will determine our

    RACINE- ORIGINE ou notre passé révèle le PRESENT qui déterminera notre AVENIR

    L’Afrique du Sud est la « GRANDE PUISSANCE » du
    continent africain, libéré par Mandela.

    est la « TETE de PONT » de l’Afrique en Amérique, depuis 1804, libéré par
    Toussaint Louverture

    NOW is the TIME to “PROSPER” / IL est. TEMPS
    de “PROSPERER”… seeing, voyant :

    3 Jean 1:2

    3 John 1:2


    John 8:12

  • William Prince

    Do we stop celebrating Jesus because some people misremember Him?

  • Geoff Ramsay

    Loved your article, but I cannot support a title that I think was just designed to grab attention. :(

  • Jaymee

    You realize that titling articles in ways like this will turn many, many people away from this site and from Christianity. Many won’t read for clarification, and will chalk it up to “those Christians being racist again” or something. I am not singling this article out in particular, but there are many like it on Red Letter Christians and I don’t think the “shock value” is worth it.

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