In honor of the upcoming national holiday celebrating the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I offer a brief (and sorely inadequate) summary and commentary of sorts on Dr. King’s 1967 speech, “Where do we go from here?” I must state upfront that I am in no way an expert on Dr. King’s works and have only a basic acquaintance with his writings; however, I share Dr. King’s Christian faith, his vision for racial equality, and I greatly admire the way in which he integrated his beliefs and his actions.
In the first section of his speech, Dr. King gives a number of examples-from job opportunities, to housing, to education-highlighting the ways in which African Americans, when compared to whites, are treated unjustly. After his piercing and brutally honest assessment of the failures of what the civil rights movement had hoped to attain, King then shares a vision, a trajectory for the future in light of the inequalities that still remain.
Where do we go from here? First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values. We must no longer be ashamed of being black. The job of arousing manhood within a people that have been taught for so many centuries that they are nobody is not easy.
As a white person, I believe that King’s vision is not only for blacks but is also a vision that ought to be embraced by whites, Asians, Hispanics and every other race and people group on our planet. Until we see all people as having inherent dignity and worth (qualities, which the Christian believes result from the human person’s creation in God’s image), we will not be able to authentically adopt and begin to live out King’s vision. Continuing his thoughts above, King encourages African Americans to recognize their inherent dignity, beauty and personhood-in spite of the unjust, demoralizing ways in which white culture has tried to reduce them to white sameness and de-value (if not, eradicate) their history, worth and contributions-. As King exhorts,
No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation or Johnsonian Civil Rights Bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The Negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own Emancipation Proclamation. And, with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, ‘I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history. How painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my foreparents and I am not ashamed of that. I’m ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave.’
In the third section of his speech, King emphasizes the very legitimate need for blacks to have political power and an organized, unified societal voice. The lack in these areas was part of the problem of the past, as it allowed the whites in power to keep African Americans voice-less and power-less, thus perpetuating injustices which of course benefited whites. King defines power as “the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change.” As King explains, power in itself is not bad or evil so long as it is used properly. However, King is well-aware that both philosophers and political leaders have misconstrued and abused power. In particular, they have set love and power against one another, as “polar opposites so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.” Here King mentioned by name the German philosopher, Nietzsche, who so vehemently attacked what he (wrongly) understood as the Christian notion of love. Rather than a dichotomous or adversarial view of the relation between power and love, King calls us to harmonious view of the two wherein we understand
that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on. What has happened is that we have had it wrong and confused in our own country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience.
King goes on to criticize those who advocate pursuing equal rights by any means necessary, which in essence is to re-introduce and utilize a distorted, perverse notion of power. Such a view is fueled by the same hate that motivated the white agenda, and as King notes, it “led a few extremists today to advocate for Negroes the same destructive and conscienceless power that they have justly abhorred in whites. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.”
In the fourth section of his speech, King proposes what I imagine was and still is a controversial program, “a guaranteed annual income.” Here I offer very little commentary, as I do not feel qualified to engage the issues sufficiently. I will say that I agree with King’s rejection of simplistic characterizations of “the poor” as lazy, lacking in moral fiber and initiative-such a generalization is blind to the oppressive structures built into the framework of our society, structures that are not easily re-configured. Likewise, I concur with King that an individual’s worth should never be based solely on his or her economic status. Nonetheless, when a person’s ability to work and earn a living for him/herself and/or provide for his/her loved ones is taken away, or the opportunities to do so are few and unjustly distributed, that person’s self-esteem and self-worth suffer and tensions in familial relations tend to increase significantly. King doesn’t attempt to spell out how this annual income might be implemented (which of course would be out of place given the genre); however, he is confident that something more than what was being done at the time to improve job and other opportunities for blacks could in fact be done. Whether one agrees with King or not on this point, the way he ends this section, has a powerful rhetorical punch:
John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.