MLK day, today and tomorrow

Martin Luther King had his day. Now let's drag him out of sainthood and back into controversy and relevance.

Martin Luther King has more to give us in the 21st century than a three-day weekend. Just read the speeches that haven't been chiseled in stone yet.

"This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers."

The public accolades ladled upon this fallen leader embalm him in sentimentality, in some glass case in the pantheon of national heroes, next to Washington, Lincoln, Elvis, et al. Then once a year we cherry-pick a memorable phrase here or there ("I have a dream" comes to mind for some reason), as though the words are frozen in history, part of a time when there was struggle and disagreement and prejudice.

The shocking thing about King is that his words are as alive and unsettling as they've ever been. Freed from the context of national myth, they can still elicit rocks and epithets and spittle from the mob. And they should. Their job is far from done. King's vision isn't simply a part of our past. His words give us a glimpse of our future. 

The possibility he embodied flickered briefly in the national consciousness. Then the forces he opposed with his life reasserted themselves and regained control of government, making King's words about the national soul more urgent now, in my opinion, than they were in the '50s and '60s.

The above quote is from "A Time To Break Silence," the speech he delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 - a year to the day before he was assassinated - in which he broke publicly with LBJ over the Vietnam war. These words stand as tough and challenging as they did 39 years ago:

"We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for (our troops) must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved."

Listen again and you may gasp at their relevance just as I did when my friend Joel Garb, a Madison, Wis., Vet for Peace, started reading this speech to me the other day. Nothing has changed, except that our weapons are deadlier and our cynicism is greater.

King's voice, that day in New York City, soared beyond the particular war then in full fury and horror, to the eternal futility of violence, the limits of nationalism and the roots of war itself. His words are eerily prophetic. They could have been delivered yesterday; he could have been talking about Iraq: "The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

"A true revolution of values," he continued, "will lay hands on the world order and say of war: 'This way of settling differences is not just.' This business of burning human beings with napalm" - today he would say white phosphorous, depleted uranium - "of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. 

"A nation," King declared, "that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

These words tremble with relevance and controversy. Thirty-nine years later, the warning they deliver hits a wall of sophisticated denial. But they cannot be denied. They speak to who we are and how we behave. They unearth the impacted assumptions of geopolitics and - if we let them loose - threaten to revive the values revolution fomented by the civil rights movement four decades ago.

King declared himself not only an American but a citizen of the world. He refused to dehumanize in his own heart America's official enemies; he refused not to listen to them or see their point of view. Then it was the National Liberation Front; today it's "the insurgency." He dared to demand of government the qualities of empathy and love, and a sense of responsibility for the whole planet, not just its own short-term interests.

As far as I'm concerned, today is Martin Luther King Day, and so is tomorrow.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can reach him at [email protected] or visit his Web site at

  Category: Americas, World Affairs
  Topics: Civil And Political Rights, Martin Luther King
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Older Comments:
MLK is one of the very few American public figures who I greatly respect and the same sentiments are shared by many others in the US and in other parts of the world.It was MLK who said the following " we now have guided missiles and misguided men " How apt the statement made almost 40 years ago

This article is frightenly current.I'm not sure when our country felt it was alright to completely demolish countries, or when it decided that it was alright for women to go to war or alright for our major industries be focused on sending the children of our lower classes to die in these conflicts. When did all this happen? When materialism became more important than human rights? When educational degrees were given all the credibility and human conscience was given none? When money made individuals right or wrong?
These things use to be untrue in America.
As a person who's father fought in World War II, I find myself thinking, thank God my parents are dead and did not live to see this America. It is an America they said could never exist.
It happened while we were busy making money and earning degrees and raising children.
May Allah protect and save those children.And the children in all the world where we have chosen to see them as sub-human.

I was student in mid-west USA 25 years ago. Then, I observed that there was a kind of spiritual emptiness in most American I came in contact with - a kind of alianation. To fill this emptiness, they resort to consuming huge amount of material things - including gas. The last is the cause of all the trouble in the world.Even when I was in US somebody in Congress started talking about invading Iran to get their oil which happened to be under sand of the Arab countries.

Thank you

I dare to put a saeedi in charge of Makka if he is the most qualify-taqi Muslim among Us.

Taqwa is First.

I think the US has evolved and has come a long way. Like a child developing it is slowly turning toward maturity, after many many mistakes and acts of stupidity and violence. At the moment it is in its youthful and resentful age. Sadly we have nut for a leader. But this too will change. I think America is changing as we speak. I was a Baptist and aspired to be a preacher after college. Islam was a totally foreign thing to me. Well I am today a Muslim and so is my wife, my mother, my 3 brothers and 2 sisters and now even my brother-in-law who is also a state trooper. If you watch the video from BBC's channel 4 below you will understand what I mean: