Letter at length

Dr. King should be studied more fully

No modern American hero is so often referred to and so significantly misrepresented as Martin Luther King. From grade school through high school and beyond, we are reminded again and again of his immortal "I Have a Dream" speech and his vision of people of all colors being judged "by the content of their character." King's soaring eloquence in this 1963 moment is thrilling indeed, but do we not violate the content of Dr. King's character and do a disservice to his legacy and ourselves if we fail to move beyond one passage of one speech and expand our understanding of this remarkable man?

As a career educator myself, I recommend one of King's final essays, "The World House," for those who want to discover more deeply the expanse of his key beliefs. In this essay Dr. King articulates a clear, coherent view of the most critical problems we face. Written in 1967, a year before King's seldom-studied, controversial assassination, "The World House" denounces racism, poverty and militarism as the three "evil triplets" of the modern world.

Sadly, few of our citizens learn about King's ideas on poverty and militarism. Yes, we get the racism part, but why neglect two thirds of what a great hero believed to be our most pressing challenges? By examining "The World House," we can move beyond a simplistic, cartoon-like image of King, forever uttering the same dreamy phrases, and more maturely appreciate his provocative, contemporary relevance.

King uses the metaphor of a "world house" to illustrate our interconnectedness and mutual responsibility. He points to "neocolonialism" as the source of many woes. Lashing out against exploitative corporate policies especially common in Latin America, King writes: "Everywhere&one finds a tremendous resentment of the United States, and that resentment is always strongest among the poor and darker peoples of the continent." Current images of destitute, earthquake-shattered Haiti highlight the importance of King's call for a global war on poverty: "No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for 'the least of these.'" His understanding of Christian moral obligation forced him to declare: "The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich."

Probably the most ignored part of Dr. King's philosophy is his passion for peace. Few learn about his courageous decision to speak out against the Vietnam War, a choice that expanded his enemies in the FBI and Pentagon and possibly cost him his life: "When I see our country today intervening in what is basically a civil war, mutilating hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children with napalm, burning villages and rice fields at random, painting the valleys of that small Asian country red with human blood and sending home half-men, mutilated mentally and physically, I tremble for our world." He knew that when it comes to peace, talk is cheap: "We must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war."

Ultimately, King calls for a "revolution of values." He asks us to restrain our cancerous militarism so that we can fight more effectively against racism and poverty. Haiti, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East all come to mind when we read King's warning: "The shirtless and barefoot people of the world are rising up as never before." He admonishes us that, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." Today, with our exorbitant, expanding wars and the widening gap between rich and poor, in our own country and the world, clearly our need has never been greater to reach a deeper understanding of Dr. King's most significant ideas.

Ron Hertz


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