How Dr. King’s prophetic words define our current crises



On April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in the pulpit of New York City’s famed Riverside Church and proclaimed in front of thousands of congregates that “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

An image of Martin Luther King, Jr. near the 40th & Stevens entrance of the park.
An image of Martin Luther King, Jr. near the 40th & Stevens entrance of MLK Jr. Park in south Minneapolis.

Numerous historians point to Dr. King’s speech that day, which was titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” as the moment his position as a threat to the status quo reached its zenith. This was not the first time King spoke out about the war in Vietnam. Yet he was fully aware that this particular address, so public in its nature, might be regarded as a betrayal of a president, Lyndon Johnson, who had signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

However, King refused to be deterred and viewed this speech as a moral obligation, noting that “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.” He also took President Johnson to task during his speech by asserting that the nation’s involvement in Vietnam had thoroughly and perhaps irrevocably undermined the Johnson Administration’s own “war on poverty” here in America.

As the result of King’s defiance and moral courage in delivering this address, more than a few scholars and activists both then and now have cited April 4, 1967 as the day that King essentially “signed his own death warrant.” This includes Dr. Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. of the New York Theological Seminary who recently penned the insightful essay “Why Martin Luther King had to Die” in The Huffington Post.

In recent years, there has been a considerable amount of scholarship that has focused specifically on King’s enduring legacy, his increasing radicalism, and the last year of his life, which began on that day in New York City. Among the multitude of book and essays to tackle this subject matter is the unique memoir Martin’s Dream. Written by Dr. Clayborne Carson, editor of The King Papers and founder of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, this text seeks to carefully examine the legend, vision and historical magnitude of King.

At the center of this exploration lies the evolution of a leader who was moving beyond the issue of civil rights to the more sweeping question of human rights, which echoed the emerging thoughts of Malcolm X shortly before he was assassinated in 1965. By linking the matters of race, poverty and war, King radically elevated the discussion on democracy, freedom, and justice. His prophetic allusion to the “giant triplets” of evil and the peril they would yield if left unchecked guided King’s work for the remainder of his days, which he most certainly knew were numbered.

Undaunted, he continued the message he delivered in New York at an anti-war rally at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus in late April of 1967. In this address, King uttered the famous quote, “I’m not only going to be concerned about justice for Negroes in the United States because I know that justice is indivisible, and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I’m concerned about justice for everybody the world over.”

Shortly after his visit to St. Paul, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began planning his latest vision known as The Poor People’s Campaign, an interracial effort designed to ensure human rights and economic justice across racial lines. The Campaign was officially launched that December, and by February 1968 King had articulated specific demands that focused on widespread anti-poverty initiatives, employment programs, income supports and affordable housing.

Less than two months later he was gone. King’s closest aide and friend, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Sr., forged ahead with the campaign, which for all intents and purposes ended in late June of 1968 when police and the National Guard arrested Abernathy and nearly another 300 campaign demonstrators while evicting thousands more who had occupied the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for 33 days.

To this day, I believe that the meaning of Martin Luther King in America and beyond is far too great to ever be measured. Likewise, the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement were remarkable.

We must always honor those who dedicated and sometimes gave their lives to the struggle. Still, it seems that too many of those gains have been peeled back and, as Clayborne Carson notes, some dreams of the era were realized while others “turned into nightmares.”

Consider the world we live in today, where the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” that King warned us about continue to wreak havoc on the world. Some suggest we are living in a post-racial America and cite the election of President Obama as evidence of that claim. However, one needs only to reference the horde of racially charged news stories that have dotted the American landscape in recent years to verify that this is far from true.

We are also witnessing the largest wealth and income gaps in history while nearly 50 million Americans live in poverty and another 100 million currently grapple with economic insecurity. Finally, America has been in a perpetual state of declared war since 2001, which is nearly as long as the American Revolutionary War and our involvement in the first two World Wars combined.

Forty-eight years ago, King warned America about its descending path toward devastation brought forth by racism, poverty and war. We still have time to heed his call, although it could soon become too late. We must value people and the principles of peace, freedom and justice over the doctrines of profit, property and violence.


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.