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Martin Luther King: Our contemporary

Ramin Jahanbegloo | Updated on: 5 April 2018, 15:51 IST
(Wikimedia Commons)

On 2 November, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill marking the third Monday of every January, which is around King's birthday, January 15, as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This was only one honour among many others showered upon him since his assassination on 4 April, 1968.

King’s killing marked the end of an era. This is what famous African-American writer James Baldwin wrote in June 1979: “To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep. This is not the land of the free, it is only very unwillingly and sporadically the home of the brave.”

King was brave, not because he was able to defeat his opponents through physical strength, but because he helped win a democracy for his country by protesting peacefully and non-violently. He saved America, because he believed that American democracy matters; but even more, because he was of the opinion that human dignity matters.

And he knew that Black Americans cannot gain this dignity except in the process of a struggle for recognition and freedom. The Black American’s struggle for dignity and equal rights is still not over. As such, King’s assassination did not put an end to his dream, though the American society continues to be a broken and divided society.

If Gandhi had an immovable faith in the ultimate victory of Truth, King’s optimism was illustrated by a strong belief in the forces of justice and love. King considered racism and segregation to be an affront to God's love for human beings and to the human capacity for love and empathy.

That is why, he insisted on the inseparability of non-violence as moral means and as social strategy. Thus, it was only logical for him to conclude that it would be inconsistent to fight for a just and inclusive society by any means except non-violence.

King readily admitted that America needed a compelling vision of a better future. Yet, he knew well that changing America into a non-violent society was not an easy task. According to King: “If we are to implement the American dream, we must continue to engage in creative protest in order to break down all of those barriers that make it impossible for the dream to be realized. Now I know there are those people who will argue that we must wait on something. They fail to see the necessity for creative protest, but I say to you that I can see no way to break loose from an old order and to move into a new order without standing up and resisting the unjust dogma of the old order.

No doubt, if King had more time to live he would have expanded his critique of Western arrogance and global capitalism into a full-fledged philosophy. It is interesting that King developed this critique well before his civic engagement with the bus boycott in Montgomery.

Though King believed that the global mingling of cultures would not be a threat to the essence of American culture, yet he did firmly believe that the establishment of a global capitalism would carry certain dangers for the American Dream.

Today, we can see clearly how global capitalism, as pointed by King, emerges in our everyday lives and hence, King’s relationship with globalisation remains extremely important and his ideas valid even today.

Consumerism is another global capitalist attitude that King would be against, a phenomenon which he saw rapidly engulfing American middle classes. Moreover, King believed that capitalism was the force running behind colonialism and imperialism. Thus, King’s critique of capitalism is based on a deep disbelief in a system of profit-making economy, which values money more than labourers and leads to the degradation of human beings. Thus King unlocks many pertinent and ethical issues which are relevant till date such as the issue of inequality between the dominant and the dominated or the oppressor and the oppressed.

For King, Conscience was a powerful force working against racial discrimination and social injustice in the years between 1954 and 1968, those years also taught him that Conscience alone is not enough.

What was needed was the culture of nonviolence, both as a technique of civil resistance and a mode of life. What King added to the Gandhian philosophy was the hope that nonviolence would help humanity to be fulfilled through a universalist and democratic framework. Thus, King while accepting and supporting the need for anticolonial anti-imperialist struggles, actually had rejected the notion of fighting for American patriotism. King urged the American people not to completely reject everything American but to integrate the best of the American Dream, i.e. justice and morality in order to be able to create a self-reliant and non-arrogant America.

King had an immense faith in human interconnectedness as the cure for American arrogance and for war and violence. In his views, it was disunity and indifference which are the causes of discrimination, injustice and human poverty.

He held that through human solidarity, one could convert individual weakness into strength. Thus King can be seen as an open-minded thinker for whom nationalist fanaticism and cultural and racial prejudices were but not good. He was a true cosmopolitan, who believed in the unity of humankind. King would certainly not have supported the way globalisation is being led today by big corporations and according to the logic of international financial institutions and other big players which brings no benefits to the poor people. But he would have assuredly supported the nonviolent struggle of people against authoritarianism and neo-colonialism around the world.

Fifty years after King’s assassination, it is time to explore his significant legacy of non-violence for peoples and places embroiled in conflict; including his legacy for the civic movements in the U.S. and the diverse movements around the world.

It is a fact, for the younger generation who needs change, Martin Luther King, has turned to the symbol of the “American Dream” as a hope of equity and social justice for every individual beyond the American society. With the failure of all major political paradigms in the last hundred years, starting from revolutionary leftism and fascism up to neo-liberalism and ideological Islam, it is more than evident that nonviolent action is the new paradigm that is attempting to define itself distinctly and overcome the intellectual and political weaknesses of its predecessors.

Therefore, there is common agreement among many public intellectuals and civil activists that the main contradiction our contemporary world is the one between authoritarian violence and democratic nonviolence. Though this nonviolent paradigm is still in the making, it can nonetheless be characterized as a legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

First published: 5 April 2018, 15:51 IST