The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the reality of climate change are both victims of western culture’s remarkable capacity to accommodate and neutralize that which is most critical of it.
Early in the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin said to King, “I have a feeling that the Lord had laid his hand upon you. And that is a dangerous, dangerous thing.” Similarly, the FBI once described Martin King as the “most dangerous man in America” – and yet, as Martin Luther King Jr day rolls around again in the United States, we are often presented with a figure that seems more like a cheerleader for the status quo rather than a prophetic challenge to it. Somehow, it seems we have made this dangerous figure very safe.
For instance, in a speech at the Pentagon commemorating King’s legacy, the Defense Department’s general counsel Jeh C. Johnson remarked, “I believe that if Dr King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.”
But to claim that Dr King would be pro-war today is as likely as him being pro-segregation. After all, this is the Dr King who said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” And this is the same Dr King who said in his speech on 4 April 1967 (a speech that turned three quarters of American public opinion against him), “To me the relationship of the ministry [of Jesus Christ] to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I’m speaking against the war.” And this is the same Dr King who said, the night before he was murdered on 4 April 1968, “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”