What has Martin Luther King changed
“The dream remains current: that all people will live together in dignity, justice and peace. King himself realized as early as the mid-1960s that formal legal equality for blacks does not change their social situation by itself. He put it in the following picture: What use is it for blacks if they can now go to the same restaurants as white people to eat - but they don't have the money to buy a burger?
In his analysis he made it clear that poverty, racism and militarism form a structural connection. And that is as relevant today as it was then. After the successful fight against legal segregation in the southern states, he went to the cities of the north of the USA from the mid-1960s to address the social disadvantage of African-Americans outside the south as well. Martin Luther King himself moved with his family to a slum on the West Side of Chicago and described the unreasonable conditions as "internal colonization". By publicly denouncing this systemic racism, which continued to have an effect even after legal equality and was woven into economic and social structures, it rapidly lost its popularity. His criticism of the Vietnam War was just as unpopular.
Hundreds of thousands cheered him for his famous speech in 1963, and at his funeral there were again so many who took part. But in between it had become very lonely for him. For him, however, it was clear that the dignity of human beings as God's image is not achieved through formal equality alone, important as this is. He was aware that Christian charity is not a sentimentality for Sundays, but that love aims at justice and can only be achieved structurally. Martin Luther King combined a clear theological orientation with an analysis of social structures. It was therefore obvious to him: In order to overcome racism and injustice in his own country - but also worldwide - the social and economic system must be fundamentally changed. He recognized this global dimension very early on and he always saw a connection between the fight against segregation and racism in the USA and decolonization worldwide. He also rejected the Vietnam War, not least because he saw it as a colonial war in which whites fought against 'People of Color'. Beyond the immediate atrocities of war, King saw that the resources used there were lacking in the fight against poverty in the United States and around the world.
Therefore, in my opinion, it is dangerous to identify with King from the outside, so to speak from a 'higher vantage point', in order to determine how bad the situation of blacks in the USA still is today. To learn from King would be to apply his analysis of the links between racism, injustice and militarism here and around the world. But then we would come into view ourselves. It is easier to build monuments to King and to remember the non-violent, integrationist ’black Gandhi’ of the early years, who had this beautiful dream that all people are equal.
It is more challenging to acknowledge that King himself sometimes felt that his dream had turned into a nightmare. Nevertheless, he stuck to his dream that all human beings are connected in equal dignity as images and children of God. To achieve this same dignity, however, the structural roots of racism, injustice and militarism must be addressed. That was true then and still applies today - in the USA, but also here and around the world.
It is no coincidence that King was murdered while helping urban garbage collectors in Memphis in their struggle for equal pay as their white counterparts and fair treatment. Here the connection between racism and economic exploitation was quite obvious - and also that change cannot happen without cutting back on the privileges of whites. King described just that in his writings on racism and economic disadvantage from the mid-1960s. He said the harder part of the way was still ahead of them, because now it was no longer just a matter of changing electoral laws, but of redistributing social prosperity. And then the enthusiasm of the liberal white middle class for equality for all would quickly wane. How right he was and unfortunately still is today!
In his last address on the evening before his assassination, King emphasized once again that the promised land of freedom and justice would one day be achieved - even if he might not experience this again himself. Martin Luther King's 90th birthday is an encouragement and admonition to continue on this path! "
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