Of the great many holidays we celebrate in the United States, Martin Luther King Day is one of the most honorable. King was not merely a champion in the Civil Rights movement, but also a tremendous organizer of the power of the people, and an outspoken advocate for peace and social justice. It is unfortunate that King so often gets co-opted for political means unbecoming of his own grassroots work,* but that's the nature of these national holidays.
* It seems unlikely that King would support any policy or politician responsible for our wars in Afganistan and Iraq. Consider: "Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours." Some things never change.
Consider also this: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." I'll simply note, briefly, that America's military budget has increased since Bush left office.
My brief thoughts here will not do justice to King, nor will they give due to the great many other champions that made the Civil Rights movement (King, Jackie Robinson, and Malcolm X were not the only heroes of the era). I do, however, want to mention a much overlooked part of King's career. We make so much of his role in fighting the racist laws and conventions of American society during the 60s, but he spent significant time fighting poverty as well. Indeed, he felt that poverty - much more than policy - was responsible for the subjugation of blacks in America. The social side of racism cannot be separated from the economic one, after all, and the plight of poor whites is just as dire as the plight of poor blacks.
"The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty."
Is this an idealistic vision? An impossible demand? Technologically, no, it is not. "Practically" it may very well be, but that is primarily because of the great many powerful people who survive and strive on the poverty of others. Poverty is not necessary, per se, but it is necessary in a capitalist economy. King's anti-capitalist sentiments are often kept on the down-low, especially on this holiday - and this year in particular, where many will celebrate the "victory" of Barack Obama's election as President, ignoring the fact that blacks are still treated as inferior if not socially, economically throughout the country.
Above all, though, King was a revolutionary who believed uncompromisingly in his idealistic vision, and who believed that it could be achieved through nonviolence. Is that naive? We certainly treat similar thinkers today like it is. And it is fair to say that King alone did not cause the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps he influenced it - much as Gandhi influenced the Indian independence effort - and turned it from a potentially more confrontational path, but confrontation still happened, violence still ruled many a day, and poverty - the root cause of social stratification along ethnic lines - remains unchecked.
I do not think Martin Luther King Day is meant to be a time when we reflect and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Rather, it should be a call to action. King's vision of a fair and just society for all has not been realized, and it will continue to take the work and energy of the millions to fulfill it.