Reflections on the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science

Honoring MLK

I’m embarrassed to admit that, like I suspect many White Americans, when I think about “Martin Luther King” and “speeches” I only come up with one: “I Have a Dream”. Granted, it is great, because it’s beautiful, intense, emotional and thought-provoking.

But it’s not the only thing he ever delivered deserving of recognition.

Jamelle Bouie, in a recent New York Times subscriber-only newsletter1 introduced me to another of MLK’s speeches which in many ways is even better than I Have a Dream. Because it builds on that earlier speech, and adds insights that King developed after delivering Dream.

A Christmas Sermon on Peace was King’s last Christmas sermon before he was assassinated, delivered December 24, 1967. He started by noting just how far away from peace the world was, an observation which, sadly, applies today as well:

This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities.

His solution involves something which any Boiling Frog listener would instantly recognize:

Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.

While not rejecting individualism he clearly articulates why it cannot be the basis of any complex society, let alone one as filled with opportunity and potential as our own. Our connectedness, the communities we build, are key to our personal success:

Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent […] And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

But he then ropes in a connection which I’d never thought of. We’ve all heard the aphorism “the ends don’t justify the means”…but King highlights a connection which is much deeper than just the basis of a warning:

But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree. […]

We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.

Yet he was well aware how far away this hope, this dream was, and still remains more than fifty years later:

I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. I remember the first time I saw that dream turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Yet despite how distant that dream seemed, King remained defiantly confident it would one day be achieved:

I still have a dream that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized, and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda. I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

But how can that possibly come about? Here’s Bouie’s synthesis of King’s legacy in that regard, which I think resonates powerfully with ideas we come back to in our podcasts again and again:

Our problems are global problems: a rising tide of chauvinism and authoritarianism; corruption that touches and distorts representative institutions around the world; and, of course, climate change. King’s observation that for any of us to do anything we must rely on the work and labor of someone halfway around the world …is truer now than it was then, and demands that we recognize the fact, not for self-flagellation but for solidarity.

To connect to laborers around the world, to see that their struggles relate to ours and ours relate to theirs, is to begin to forge the “network of mutuality” that we will need to tackle our global problems as well as to confront the obstacles to our collective liberation from domination and hierarchy.

Thank you, Dr. King, for your insight, your dedication and your courage. May we one day live up to your dreams.

  1. If you live anywhere in the United States and don’t subscribe to the New York Times, you should. And probably should, wherever you live.