The Common Good
January 2004

An Escalation of Humanity

by Stewart Burns | January 2004

Author Stewart Burns talks with Sojourners' Julie Polter on King's relevance for America today.

Sojourners: What about Martin Luther King has America tried to forget?

Stewart Burns: Many like to honor King only as he stood at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, frozen in time, talking about his dream of justice. But King lived for five more years, during which he deepened his understanding of American society, especially what was needed in terms of solutions.

King had to come to grips with urban rebellions in cities across the United States that resulted from desperate poverty and dashed expectations. People in the ghettos were saying, Well, if we're supposed to have freedom now, where is it? We don't have jobs, we're massively unemployed, rats are attacking our babies. King, who had grown up middle class, really didn't understand poverty until the Watts revolt of 1965, when he went and talked to people there. He then took leadership in focusing the civil rights movement on economic justice and on a broad range of human rights. And he came to oppose the Vietnam War very strongly and bravely.

All of this had terrific repercussions on his credibility as a civil rights leader. He had been a genius at what I call radical moderation, but it got to the point where his radicalism won out and he could no longer be a moderate leader. He became a nonviolent revolutionary in the sense of deep adherence to the American creed of freedom, equality, and democracy and dedication to making it real for all.

Sojourners: Why do we need another book on King?

Burns: This nation is in the kind of desperate condition, the soul sickness, that King prophesied about in the late 1960s. When he prophesied that America would be doomed unless we solved these interwoven problems of racism, exploitation, and militarism, it was as if he was really talking about the 21st century.

There have been a number of excellent books about King, but they tend to present certain dimensions of his life and leadership without showing the integrated whole. I attempt to tie together King's civil rights and human rights leadership with his fundamental spiritual journey.

Sojourners: What could today's activists learn from King?

Burns: He clearly escalated his militancy in the last year of his life—he talked about the need to do massive civil disobedience that would dislocate the functioning of American cities. But as he became increasingly militant in his tactics, he also escalated his humanity. He became more and more fiercely dedicated to nonviolent tactics.

It's rather phenomenal to see how he could be so passionately committed to eliminating poverty, his final great crusade, yet at the same time be almost a fanatic about the need to adhere to nonviolence principles. Many activists today are doing magnificent things in terms of the global justice movement, very creative nonviolent actions. But they're not escalating their human concern for their adversary. They're escalating their commitment to justice, but not their compassion. King was a remarkable example of doing both at once.

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