Dr. King and a Moral Plan for Justice

Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (Wikimedia Commons)

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a pastor, civil rights leader, Nobel Prize winner, author, son, husband, and father. It took 15 years for the United States to declare his birthday a national holiday. Numerous works on King such as King: A LifeThe Radical KingThe Sword and the Shield provide biographical accounts, cover King’s revolutionary thoughts and ideas, and engage points of divergence and convergence with Malcolm X. This article explores the last book written by King himself, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, which revealed his thoughts and plans for achieving a good and just society. This analysis challenges current and future generations to broaden its understanding of King beyond struggles in the American South, speeches, marches, and his martyrdom to include his nonviolent direct action, moral compass, political organizing, and plans for the whole of the United States and the world. Lastly, it encourages considering King’s approach and plan as an option towards attaining justice. King was clear when he stated, “freedom is not given, it is won.” King had a moral plan of action to bring about freedom for all.

In 1967 King published Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? where he addressed matters of race, materialism, militarism, and he also discussed a moral plan for justice. First, King understood the concept of power, how to amass the power of the people, and how to deploy that power in imaginative and creative ways towards moral and just ends. King defined power as “the ability to achieve purpose.” He continues stating, “the Negro must seek to transform his condition of powerlessness into creative and positive power.” King, then, is advocating for Black people to amass power; a sort of Black power. To be clear, he is a critic of the slogan Black Power, rejecting notions of Black separatism and the implications of violence that the press would use to distract from the real issues. However King supported and advocated Black people amassing social, economic, and political power. And since Black people did not have major media, economic, and political power, it was the creative power of militant non-violent direct-action programs that dramatized immorality and injustice to bring about change throughout the American South and beyond. King asserted, “Nonviolent direct action will continue to be a significant source of power until it is made irrelevant by the presence of justice.”

King sought to amass economic power through employment and consumerism. Taking advantage of a resurgence of labor unions in the mid to late 1960s, King advocated that “our young people need to think of union careers as earnestly as they do of business careers and professions.” Job security and fair wages due to the political power of labor unions was understood by King as a practical strategy to increase and protect Black employment. King also pointed to Black consumer power as a strategy to increase power. As consumers he called on Black consumers “to support those businesses that will give a fair share of jobs to Negroes and to withdraw its support from those businesses that have discriminatory practices.” The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Operation Breadbasket was an example of successful economic boycotts of businesses that engaged in discriminatory hiring practices. Black consumer strikes harnessed the power of local communities not only leading to fair hiring practices and increasing the amount of money being brought back to Black communities, but it also empowered Black people knowing that change was coming for the better. This further instilled hope and pride in the otherwise oppressed and dejected Black communities.

King also sought to tap Black power in the political arena. After the passing of the Voting Rights Act, King turned his attention to “the development of a strong voice that is heard in the smoke-filled rooms where party debating and bargaining proceed.” He was clear that Black people have to create and nurture such a Black politician that can be a moral, strong, and trustworthy voice, while also developing the art of coalition politics and alliance-building. King encouraged Black people to become intense political activists. This required a new kind of education, as King stated,“Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential. Social action without education is a weak expression of pure energy.” He continued stating, “Our policies should have the strength of deep analysis beneath them to be able to challenge the clever sophistries of our opponents.” When education and study reveal the clever sophistries, or dishonesties, of the opponent, Black people and their communities must not be taken advantage of and exploited as easily. For King, when Black people amass a Black Power that creates tangible social, economic, and political change, their dignity and self-worth increases. In this sense, King is clear that power is not the sole possession of white people, but is “a social force any group can utilize by accumulating its elements in a planned, deliberate campaign to organize it under its own control.”

It is important to note here that King’s effort was to integrate society not merely in a social sense, or in regard to race relations. King viewed integration in political terms, where there would be a sharing of power. King said in an interview ten days before his martyrdom, “When we see integration in political terms, then we recognize that there are times when we must see segregation as a temporary way-station to a truly integrated society.” Politically King recognized and valued Black unity as a political force. It becomes the base of power from which to organize and mobilize. He continued stating, “There are points at which I see the necessity for temporary segregation in order to get to the integrated society.” Pointing to examples of school integration in the South and the Teachers’ Association being integrated and Black people entering the integrated space without power, King stated, “We don’t want to be integrated out of power; we want to be integrated into power.” For King a critical issue in the moral struggle for a just society was shared social, economic, and political power. Black unity, then, is a political necessity for bringing about justice because it is a source of power.

It is also important to note here that King understood that equality, in and of itself is not enough. He said, “Equality with whites will not solve the problems of wither whites or Negroes if it means equality in a world stricken by poverty and in a universe doomed to extinction by war.” King understood that scientific and technological advancements led to the world getting smaller. The ability to travel and communicate with people around the world has vastly improved and been made much more convenient. Just as important, King said, was that scientific and technological advancements could now feed the world’s hungry. And yet without the moral suasion to care for the poverty stricken, hungry, and ill, as King said, it would result in an “Improved means to an unimproved end.” For King the world needed a revolution in values, not just the United States. He said, “A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” Here, King used the analogy of a world house. He said that “All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors. This world-wide neighborhood has been brought into being largely as a result of modern scientific and technological revolutions.” More than ever this world house required a moral compass; a moral revolution leading toward moral progress in combination with scientific progress to right the wrongs in pursuit of justice.

In the mid-1960s, during the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the growing Cold War, King spoke out against the war in Vietnam as a threat to justice and meaningful peace. For King the prominence and growing presence of Communism was a result of the failure of democracy. King challenged the United States to be the world leader in a moral revolution and to ignite a revolutionary spirit by taking a moral and eternal opposition to poverty, racism, and militarism. King concluded, “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”

In the past and present, the country and world is full of division, violence, poverty, and hunger. It is appropriate not only to revisit King’s message, but to revisit his attempt to develop a moral plan for justice, and then update it for contemporary implementation. The goal is to treat all of the world peoples with human respect and dignity while working towards increasing their quality of life and material conditions. King marched and gave speeches, but he also had a moral plan for justice that continues to be relevant and employed.

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M. Keith Claybrook

M. Keith Claybrook, Jr., Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at CSU, Long Beach where he teaches classes on history and the social sciences. Claybrook serves on CSU, Long Beach’s Presidents Commission on Equity and Change Commission, and served two terms as VP of the Black Faculty and Staff Association and. He regularly attends conferences such as the National Conference of Black Studies National conference, the African Heritage Studies Association, Sixth Region Diaspora Caucus conference, and other conferences where he has presented on a diversity of topics including Black student activism, the Black Students Movement, Black Los Angeles, educational history, African Deep Thought and critical thinking, identity and consciousness, reparations, Hip Hop, and pedagogy. He has also published book reviews, journal articles, encyclopedia entries, and book chapters. His publications include, Building the Basics: A Handbook for Pursuing Academic Excellence in Africana Studies, “Putting Some Soul into Critical Thinking: Toward an African Centered Approach to Critical Thinking,” “Africana Studies, 21st Century Black Student Activism, and High Impact Educational Practices: A Biographical Sketch of David C. Turner, III,” “David L. Horne: A Living Example of a Pan African Leader Scholar- Activist,” and “Black Power, and Black Students, and the Institutionalizing of Change: Loyola Marymount University, 1968- 1978.” Claybrook has lent his expertise on “Today in L.A.” on NBC4, KJLH’s “Front Page with Dominque DePrima,” KPCC- NPR on “AirTalk with Larry Mantle,” and several other television, print, and internet media outlets.

Comments on “Dr. King and a Moral Plan for Justice

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    I thoroughly enjoyed this article by Dr. Claybrook. After reading this moral plan it is clear to see the fundamental necessity of power that Black people need in order to function under the political structure that our “democracy” is built on. No power is ever placed in the hands of the people, instead it is the government that holds the power. Our goal as Black people is to integrate ourselves into the power structure and that requires unity as King prescribes. This article was enlightening!

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