“We must devote at least as much to our children’s education and the health of the poor as we do to the care of our automobiles and the building of beautiful, impressive hotels,” Martin Luther King Jr. said 53 years ago, as relevant now as ever. “We must also realize that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — which has been an official federal holiday since 1986 — many people read or listen once again to his most famous speech, from August, 1963, I Have a Dream, But these days, people are finding King’s speech below, delivered four years later, on August 31, 1967, especially apt. Speaking at the first and only National Conference on New Politics in Chicago, he focused on what he considered the “triple prong sickness” of “racism, excessive materialism and militarism,” and exhorted the listeners:
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world, declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism.”
“…on some positions; cowardice asks the question, is it safe; expediency asks the question, is it politic; vanity asks the question, is it popular, but conscience asks the question, is it right?”
“…there is a need now, more than ever before, for men and women in our nation to be creatively maladjusted…I choose to be among the maladjusted”
King was killed seven months later.
Transcribed excerpts of the speech, with some sentences highlighted, are below the audio of the complete speech.
…Seldom if ever has such a diverse and truly ecumenical gathering convened under the aegis of politics in our nation, and I want to commend the leadership of the National Conference on New Politics for all of the great work that they have done in making this significant convention possible. Indeed by your very nature we affirm that something new is taking place on the American political horizon. We have come here from the dusty plantations of the Deep South and the depressing ghettos of the North. We have come from the great universities and the flourishing suburbs. We have come from Appalachian poverty and from conscience-stricken wealth. But we have come.
And we have come here because we share a common concern for the moral health of our nation. We have come because our eyes have seen through the superficial glory and glitter of our society and observed the coming of judgment. Like the prophet of old, we have read the handwriting on the wall.
We have seen our nation weighed in the balance of history and found wanting.
We have come because we see this as a dark hour in the affairs of men.
What happens to a dream deferred? It leads to bewildering frustration and corroding bitterness.
And so the collision course is set. The people cry for freedom and the Congress attempts to legislate repression.
It seems that our legislative assemblies have adopted Nero as their patron saint and are bent on fiddling while our cities burn
What they truly advocate is Socialism for the rich and Capitalism for the poor.
I wish that I could say that this is just a passing phase in the cycles of our nation’s life;
but I suspect that we are now experiencing the coming to the surface of a triple prong sickness that has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning. That is the sickness of racism, excessive materialism and militarism.
Racism can well be that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on Western Civilization.
The second aspect of our afflicted society is extreme materialism; an Asian writer has portrayed our dilemma in candid terms. He says, “you call your thousand material devices labor saving machinery, yet you are forever busy. With the multiplying of your machinery you grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous,dissatisfied. Whatever you have you want more and where ever you are you want to go somewhere else. Your devices are neither time saving nor soul saving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business”. This tells us something about our civilization that cannot be cast aside as a prejudiced charge by an Eastern thinker who is jealous of Western prosperity. We cannot escape the indictment. This does not mean that we must turn back the clock of scientific progress. No one can overlook the wonders that science has wrought for our lives. The automobile will not abdicate in favor of the horse and buggy or the train in favor of the stage coach or the tractor in favor of the hand plow or the scientific method in favor of ignorance and superstition. But our moral lag must be redeemed; when scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. When we foolishly maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum we sign the warrant for our own day of doom.
It is this moral lag in our thing-oriented society that blinds us to the human reality around us and encourages us in the greed and exploitation which creates the sector of poverty in the midst of wealth. Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard word and sacrifice.
The fact is that Capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor both black and white, both here and abroad.
If Negroes and poor whites do not participate in the free flow of wealth within our economy, they will forever be poor, giving their energies, their talents and their limited funds to the consumer market but reaping few benefits and services in return. The way to end poverty is to end the exploitation of the poor, ensure them a fair share of the government services and the nation’s resources.
I proposed recently that a national agency be established to provide employment for everyone needing it. Nothing is more socially inexcusable than unemployment in this age. In the 30s when the nation was bankrupt it instituted such an agency, the WPA. In the present conditions of a nation glutted with resources, it is barbarous to condemn people desiring work to soul sapping inactivity and poverty. I am convinced that even this one, massive act of concern will do more than all the state police and armies of the nation to quell riots and still hatreds. The tragedy is, our materialistic culture does not possess the statesmanship necessary to do it. Victor Hugo could have been thinking of 20th
Century America when he wrote, “there’s always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher classes”.
The time has come for America to face the inevitable choice between materialism and humanism.
We must devote at least as much to our children’s education and the health of the poor as we do to the care of our automobiles and the building of beautiful, impressive hotels.We must also realize that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.
We must further recognize that the ghetto is a domestic colony. Black people must develop programs that will aid in the transfer of power and wealth into the hands of residence of the ghetto so that they may in reality control their own destinies. This is the meaning of New Politics. People of will in the larger community, must support the black man in this effort.
The final phase of our national sickness is the disease of militarism. Nothing more clearly demonstrates our nation’s abuse of military power than our tragic adventure in Vietnam. This war has played havoc with the destiny of the entire world. It has torn up the Geneva Agreement, it has seriously impaired the United Nations, it has exacerbated the hatred between continents and worst still between races. It has frustrated our development at home, telling our own underprivileged citizens that we place insatiable military demands above their critical needs. It has greatly contributed to the forces of reaction in America and strengthened the military industrial complex. And it has practically destroyed Vietnam and left thousands of American and Vietnamese youth maimed and mutilated and exposed the whole world to the risk of nuclear warfare. Above all, the War in Vietnam, has revealed what Senator Fulbright c
alls, “our nations arrogance of power”
We are arrogant in professing to be concerned about the freedom of foreign nations while not setting our own house in order.
Many of our Senators and Congressmen vote joyously to appropriate billions of dollars for the War in Vietnam and many of these same Senators and Congressmen vote loudly against a Fair Housing Bill to make it possible for a Negro veteran of Vietnam to purchase a decent home. We arm Negro soldiers to kill on foreign battlefields but offer little protection for their relatives from beatings and killings in our own South. We are willing to make a Negro 100% of a citizen in Warfare but reduce him to 50% of a citizen on American soil.
No war in our nation’s history has ever been so violative of our conscience, our national interest and so destructive of our moral standing before the world. No enemy has ever been able to cause such damage to us as we inflict upon ourselves. The inexorable decay of our urban centers has flared into terrifying domestic conflict as the pursuit of foreign war absorbs our wealth and energy. Squalor and poverty scar our cities as our military might destroy cities in a far off land to support oligarchy, to intervene in domestic conflict.
The President who cherishes consensus for peace has intensified the war in answer to a cry to stop the war. It has brought tauntingly to one minutes flying time from China to a moment before the midnight of world conflagration. We are offered a tax for war instead of a plan for peace. Men of reason should no longer debate, the merits of war or means of financing war. They should end the war and restore sanity and humanity to American policy. And if the will of the people continue to be unheeded, all men of free will must create a situation in which the 1967, 68 are made a referendum on the War. The American people must have an opportunity to vote into oblivion those who cannot detach themselves from militarism, and those that lead us.
So we are here because we believe, we hope, we pray that something new might emerge in the political life of this nation which will produce a new man, new structures and new institutions and a new life for mankind. I am convinced that this new life will not emerge until our nation undergoes a radical revolution of values.
When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people the giant triplets of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s road side, but that will only be an initial act. One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar, it understands that an edifice which produces beggars, needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth, with righteous indignation it will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs, with reduced incomes as a result of automation while the profits of the employers remain intact and say, this is not just. It will look across the ocean and see individual Capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia and Africa only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries and say, this is not just. It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say, this is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war,this way of settling differences is not just. This business of burning human being with napalm, of filling our nation’s home with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of people’s normalhumane, of sending men home from dark and bloodied battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year, to spend more money on military defense then on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
So what we must all see is that these are revolutionary times. All over the globe, men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot of the Earth 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, it is a sad fact that because of comfort,complacency, a morbid fear of Communism and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit and in a sense,Communism is a judgment of our failure to make democracy real and to follow through on the revolutions that we initiated.
Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world, declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism.
With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust,and thereby speed the day when every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low and the crooked places shall bemade straight and the rough places plain.
May I say in conclusion that there is a need now, more than ever before, for men and women in our nation to be creatively maladjusted. Mr. Davis said, and I say to you that I choose to be among the maladjusted,
as my good friend Bill Coughlin said there are those who have criticized me and many of you for taking a stand against the War in Vietnam and for seeking to say to the nation that the issues of Civil Rights cannot be separated from the issues of peace.I want to say to you tonight that I intend to keep these issues mixed because they are mixed. Somewhere we must see that justice is indivisible, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and I have fought too long and too hard against segregated public accommodations to end up at this point in my life, segregating my moral concerns.
So let us stand in this convention knowing that
on some positions; cowardice asks the questions, is it safe; expediency asks the question, is it politic; vanity asks the question, is it popular, but conscience asks the question, is it right?
And on some positions, it is necessary for the moral individual to take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic nor popular; but he must do it because it is right. And we say to our nation tonight, we say to our Government, we even say to our FBI, we will not be harassed, we will not make a butchery of our conscience, we will not be intimidated and we will be heard