Today is the day America commemorates the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — but often only part of his life is honored, and another part is omitted.
In popular culture, Dr. King is most remembered for his 1965 “I Have A Dream” speech and his leadership role in the civil rights battle against Jim Crow. But another significant speech came two years later at New York’s Riverside Church. It was an oration that previewed the themes of what Dr. King called the Poor People’s Campaign for social and economic justice — and it generated a torrent of anger from the media and political establishment.
I listen to this speech every year on this day, because it remains one of history’s most brave jeremiads against what Dr. King called “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
It is the speech in which he demanded an end to the Vietnam War and slammed “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
It is the speech in which he said, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
It is the speech in which he called for “a radical revolution of values,” in which “we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”
And it is the speech that got Dr. King vilified by the power elite because it skewered their predation.
Dr. King wrote the Riverside Church speech with the late Dr. Vincent Harding, who lived here in Denver and who befriended me when I first moved to this city. You can click here to listen to this 2010 interview I did with Dr. Harding about the Riverside Church speech when I was a radio host.
That year, Dr. Harding had said: “It was precisely one year to the day after this (Riverside Church) speech that that bullet which had been chasing him for a long time finally caught up with him… and I am convinced that that bullet had something to do with that speech. And over the years, that’s been quite a struggle for me.”
Politicians and pundits across the ideological spectrum pay homage to Dr. King on this day — but they almost never reference this speech or the Poor People’s Campaign, because acknowledging it would risk owning up to Dr. King’s diagnoses of everything from economic inequality to workers’ rights to systemic racism to unending militarism to the pervasive culture of greed. The rich and powerful who control the government and own major media outlets don’t want these topics discussed because the rich and powerful benefit from these problems.
But on this day, we should discuss them — and recommit to working against them.
I encourage you to go here and listen to the Riverside Church speech — it is a reminder of both uncomfortable truths and the courage we need in this moment of peril.
Rock the boat,
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