The Common Good

Honoring MLK by Changing the Wind

Friday, April 4, 2008, marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was 39-years-old, yet had already spent 15 years in a grassroots movement that radically reshaped the racial landscape in the U.S. He was not only a great preacher and civil rights leader, a Nobel Peace prize winner, and a courageous voice for peace and justice - King was also a "windchanger."

Rev. Jim Wallis often notes that politicians determine how to vote by placing their fingers in the air to gauge which way the wind is blowing. As part of the civil rights movement, King helped change the wind in the U.S.! Because of the sacrifice and tireless struggle by thousands of civil rights wind changers in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. became a more just nation.

In his late 20s, King joined grassroots activists in Montgomery to lead a year-long boycott of city buses. He helped launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and provided inspirational leadership in Birmingham, Albany, and Selma. He was a windchanger for civil rights.

But King did not stop there. When President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared war on poverty, King was on the front lines of the battle, fighting for fair housing in Chicago in 1966 and mobilizing thousands for the multi-racial Poor People's Campaign (led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy after King's death).

As President Johnson's attention turned to Vietnam, King courageously spoke out against the war. He challenged the war not only because of his commitment to nonviolence, however. As King explained to an audience exactly one year before his death:

There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor-both black and white-through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings.

Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

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