About Transitions
About Paula - Contact
Special Dedication
Heartfelt Thanks

Techniques & Services
Reiki & Healing
Labor-Birth Doula
Emotional Freedom

International Order of St. Luke
DONA International

Information & Support
Prayer Requests
Food for Thought - Quotes
Suggested Book List
Paula's Desk
Upcoming events

Click for more information

© 2007 Paula Baker


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
An essay by Jennifer J. Baker

Since the 1968 Memphis assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the American people have effectively canonized the fallen civil rights leader. This outcome is paradoxical in nature, for while it serves to honor King for his inestimable contribution to the Civil Rights movement, it also erases the memory of his violent opposition to the Vietnam War and his great concern about the distribution of wealth in the U.S. Toward the end of his life, King began to realize that "for people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, anti-discrimination laws are hollow." In this statement, King articulated the missing link in his work and sent the message that he was perhaps shifting his focus accordingly. Unfortunately, these convictions gained him a reputation as more of a dissident than a savior and led him into what would prove dangerous political territory.

King's foresight of what may eventually destroy this country - the widening gap between the rich and the poor - held true in 1968 and is perhaps more relevant today. To not recognize this is to do King a great disservice. For the American people to limit the scope of King's awareness to issues of race is to disregard his final and perhaps most controversial cause - The Poor People's Campaign, an initiative that would, for example, guarantee an income to every American family. Today, America's middle class is receding, a change that clearly signifies increasing inequities between economic classes.

It was not King's vision of blacks successfully and peacefully assimilating into the workplaces and schools, buses and restaurants of America that made him extraordinary - this was a vision shared by many blacks and whites across the nation. What set King apart from his contemporaries was, coupled with a formidable charisma, his powerful eloquence in articulating what was wrong with the status quo. This power he held over his followers and over this nation would threaten the powers that be in the American government in 1968 and would place King on the watch list of the FBI. Director J. Edgar Hoover tracked and monitored King's behavior obsessively, fearing what his imagined adversary would do next to undermine government authority.

Hoover, although paranoid for the wrong reasons, had cause to be concerned. If King had lived and had continued to loudly denounce the Vietnam War, or had finished framing his new argument that this country's problems could be alleviated by mitigating the suffering of the poor, King could certainly have stirred up a new contingent of supporters. Although moderately well supported by middle and lower-class whites in his Civil Rights work, King was still largely the savior of the African-American citizen. This could undoubtedly have changed had King successfully mobilized The Poor People's Campaign. Poverty in the U.S. is not limited by the parameter of race, but rather, like death, is boundless and serves as a great equalizer across the population. Had King been able to persuade poor whites that their situation could be remedied, an incalculable shift in power on the side of King may have occurred.

While allowing King to lead the Civil Rights movement supported America's claim that we, as a people, value justice and equality, permitting him to openly question government decisions regarding the war and populist economics would have made American powers seem weak in the eyes of the global community. King once declared, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." King's words smacked of criticism of our capitalist structure, anathema to a government that prides itself on its industrious and patriotic people.

Although none of us can know with any degree of certainty what changes could have come about in the U.S. had King survived, nor can we be sure who killed King and why, we can safely assume that in his death lies the most profound lesson of his existence. In a nation that creates and then destroys its heroes with a stunning alacrity and an unsettling lack of conscience, we, as a thinking people, are obligated to learn from our treatment of such heroes as it underscores the manner in which we handle conflict. What I see is that when King's convictions began to inspire a great deal of discomfort among people, his death as a leader began. In asking people of King's generation whether or not they recalled his vehement opposition to the war or his comments about the distribution of America's wealth, it became clear to me that few, if any, had any recollection of his work in that area. King was effectively silenced long before stepping out onto that Memphis balcony.

What is relevant about King's work today? His views on the unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S. are clearly pivotal. The darker lesson, however, is to be found in the aspects of King's work that we choose not to remember and in the way we treat our heroes, the people whom we elect to guide us, to lead us and to speak on our behalf. We adopt the parts of their doctrine that make us feel superior and patriotic and disregard other elements that make us feel guilty, or worse yet, like we have an obligation to improve the world around us. By beatifying King only for his work in the Civil Rights movement, we are discounting the larger truths he told in his final years and perhaps overlooking the real reason he was murdered.

King once said, "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." Let's not be ignorant of the magnitude and comprehensiveness of King's vision. His work has made America a better nation and us a better people, and he was a better man than we are remembering; his message, however disquieting, was more accurate than anyone would have liked to believe. In the end, the onus is on us to take responsibility for ourselves and our nation by recognizing and correcting the painful truths we have historically ignored, and continue to ignore, in the name of patriotism.