"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee..." – John Donne, Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke the above verse during Nobel Lecture, on December 11, 1964. His lecture was entitled "The Quest for Peace and Justice", delivered in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo, Norway. At the age of thirty-five, he was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.
Today is the Monday designated as a American National Holiday commemorating the birthday of Dr. King. He was born as Michael Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta on January 15, 1929 (his father was also originally named Michael). He was renamed when he was about 5 years old when his father decided that they should both change their first names to Martin.
The authorized, idealized, sanitized version of Dr. King's life story is that he fought for racial justice in America. The reality is, in the last years of his life, Dr. King articulated a far bolder, broader and very radical American revolutionary vision, encompassing a clear minded analysis and a severe criticism not only of the role of the United States in the world, but of the very nature of our political and economic system.
Dr. King's vision was articulated most powerfully in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. He gave the speech on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.
He was quickly condemned by the NAACP, civil rights leaders, the Democratic Party (he had campaigned for Lyndon Johnson) and the mainstream media.
It is doubtful that Dr. King would even be allowed to speak at any of the memorial events being held in his own name were he alive today. But he does speak to us still as we again find ourselves at a time, well as he said in 1967:
"When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
He also said:
"These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.
The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions."
Others, wiser, much more experienced and articulate than I have pointed out that these are still revolutionary times. Our country was born of revolution.
I would argue that our society, our nation, our democracy can only be served by continuing the American Revolution each and every single day.
But now, it seems to me, we have, in fact, given in and given up.
The shirtless and barefoot people of the world continue to rise up.
But we do not support them.
In fact, in many places, we support and we are the very forces who use our overwhelming economic wealth, access to natural resources and unprecedented military power to enforce the conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice.
I suggest that we revisit Martin Luther King's words.
I suggest that we re-read them in the light of the present day.
"…A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
Dr. Kings words are as meaningful, powerful, truthful and dangerous as they were in 1967.
Our own federal administration and many adult Americans condemn and trivialize anyone speaking out against the present invasions, escalations and war.
Exactly to the day, one year after breaking his silence and speaking out against his nation's injustice, materialism and war waging, Martin Luther King, Jr. was silenced. Assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Those who call for us to celebrate his birthday but dishonor his life and work and spirit dishonor all human beings. King spoke well to use Donne's poem to remind us of who we can be, who we need to be, who we absolutely now must be.
"…therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee."