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Martin Luther King Stood Up For More Than Love

King's Poor People’s Campaign addresed human rights around the world.

"Reminding us of the government’s failure to give freed slaves any land while it used affirmative action to help whites take ownership of 50 million acres of land formerly occupied by Native Americans." ((Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

"Reminding us of the government’s failure to give freed slaves any land while it used affirmative action to help whites take ownership of 50 million acres of land formerly occupied by Native Americans." ((Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Martin Luther King often spoke of the need for unconditional love. In 1955 he told Black America, “We want to love our enemies — be good to them. This is what we must live by; we must meet hate with love. We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us.” In his remarks on the King holiday President Trump referred to love five times in three sentences.

“[King] would later write, ‘It was quite easy for me to think of a god of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central.’ That is what Reverend King preached all his life. Love. Love for each other, for neighbors, and for our fellow Americans. Dr. King’s faith in his love for humanity led him and so many heroes to courageously stand up for civil rights of African-Americans,” Trump said.

That is a whole lot of love, especially if it is the kind that says we love you no matter what you do to or say about us. I am not discounting the power of love, but celebrations of King focus on his “dream” and what he saw “at the mountaintop” because those things focus on the hoped for end result: racial justice, brought about by love. 

King stood up for much more than love. And the kind of love that praises King one day after making repeated racist statements, most recently calling African countries and Haiti “shithole countries,” is really no love at all.

Trump played the love card because he, like much of America, is not comfortable with the King who was slain, standing on a balcony in Memphis in 1968. 

You will see clips of the “I have a Dream” speech from 1963 many times on Monday. What you likely won’t see King standing up to the truth about America in his “nightmare” analysis of the Dream speech from an interview in May 1967.

“I must confess that the dream I had that day has at many points turned into a nightmare...” King said. “I think the biggest problem is that we got our gains over the last 12 years at bargain rates so to speak.

It didn’t cost the nation anything, in fact it helped the economic side of the nation to integrate lunch counters and public accommodations-it didn’t cost the nation anything to get the right to vote established. Now we are confronting issues that cannot be solved without costing the nation billions of dollars...”

He was talking about poverty, structural racism and its impact. What does love say about the need to deal honestly with those issues? 

Conservatives have quoted the “content of their character, not the color of their skin” part of King’s “Dream” speech to say he was against affirmative action. 

King addressed the issue directly in speaking about the reasons for his Poor People’s Campaign, reminding us of the government’s failure to give freed slaves any land while it used affirmative action to help whites take ownership of 50 million acres of land formerly occupied by Native Americans.

“At the very same time that the government refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our Government was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor,” King said. “But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm; not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms; not only that today, many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”

There is no question that King loved those who hated him. He is also the man who said, “Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community… But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, [rioters are] shocking it by abusing property rights.”

The night before he was killed, King was in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers. He spoke of depositing money into a Black-owned bank and buying insurance from Black-owned businesses. 

He spoke of economic boycotts, saying “…up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain.” He said he was thankful to have lived to see “…Negroes in Albany, Georgia straighten their backs up, because whenever men and women straighten their backs they are going somewhere because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.”

On Martin Luther King’s birthday we all owe thanks to the men, women and children who continue to work for racial justice with their backs as straight as can be.

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Jeffery Robinson

Jeffery Robinson

Jeffery Robinson is a Deputy Legal Director and the Director of the Center for Justice, which houses the ACLU’s work on criminal justice and reform issues.

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