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Jan 16, 2009

Years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. called for a radical revolution of values to fulfill America’s promise. Is it time?

“We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. 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.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

America has ignored Dr. King’s challenge for more than four decades.
Now, as we celebrate the inauguration of our first African American president, some people think it’s finally time to take up King’s demand to rethink how America works.
“With tiny changes, King’s message is as relevant today as it was when it was last uttered in April 1968,” says John Maguire, a friend and colleague of King’s for 17 years. He argues that the country is at a turning point, with the economy in meltdown, continued racism and wars all pushing toward fundamental change. 
Maguire quotes King: “We will all die as fools if we do not end war and go to peace.”
Another long-time King friend and collaborator, Vincent Harding, echoes Maguire. He argues that King deeply believed the U.S. needed to pursue new paths to “create a more perfect union” and to fulfill “our best capacities” as a country. 
We need “a new America” to do that, he says, the kind of country that King imagined for us years ago. That new country would be more just internally, without the extremes between rich and poor that exist today. And it would be more humble externally, open to “what we don’t know and what others can teach us,” says Harding.
Grace Lee Boggs, a Detroit-based social activist who knew King and worked for many years in the civil rights movement, is even more direct. “We as a people have been very disloyal to the best of our traditions. We’ve made ourselves into people who use the world for our comfort and expansion. 
“The time for looking in the mirror is here.” 

Watch FLYP Media’s video interviews with King’s friends and collaborators, John Maguire and Vincent Harding, as they discuss everything from King’s radicalization to his legacy.


In April of 1967, King delivered a dramatic speech at Riverside Church in New York to an antiwar group. King detailed his moral, social and economic objections to the war, and the irony that “Negro and white boys” were fighting side by side, but couldn’t go to the same school or live on the same block in Chicago. 
That speech signaled a profound break with many of his allies in the civil rights movement, including President Lyndon B. Johnson. They wanted King to stay focused on civil rights, but he saw the war as one facet of the interrelated evils of “racism, extreme materialism and militarism.”
The Vietnam War is long over, but activists like Maguire, Harding and Boggs believe that King’s concern about a “deeper malady of the American spirit” and his call for a “radical revolution of values” fit neatly with the challenges facing the new presidency of Barack Obama.
Forty years ago, King argued that “something is wrong” with American capitalism, pointing to excessive consumerism and an economy that valued things more than people. Today that seems to have become almost conventional wisdom as the recession deepens, banks flounder, foreclosures rise and the financial meltdown continues.
Harding believes that King was really a social democrat who believed that the values of capitalism “simply did not go together” with the needs of the poor.  King’s agenda “was constantly with the poorest, with the most marginalized, with the weakest.”
Many analysts say that King’s thinking deepened and became more radical during the last two and a half years of his life. Maguire cites the “derision” he encountered from rioters in Watts, Calif. during the summer of 1965, the hatred he met when he began working for open housing in Chicago and “the growing shadow of the Vietnam War” as contributing to his radicalization.
What did King want? At Riverside Church, he denounced the “glaring contrast of wealth and poverty” and he challenged the country “to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice.” Maguire thinks the practical translation would have been “learning to live simply so others can simply live.”
A year and a day later, King was murdered in Memphis, Tenn.

“But from the mountain top, he pointed the way for us—a land no longer torn asunder with racial hatred and ethnic strife, a land that measured itself by how it treats the least of these, a land in which strength is defined not simply by the capacity to wage war but by the determination to forge peace—a land in which all of God’s children might come together in a spirit of brotherhood. We have not yet arrived at this longed for place.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Groundbreaking Ceremony Monday, Nov. 13, 2006

The first elected African American mayor of Trenton, N.J., Douglas Palmer, spoke to FLYP about doing the right thing today for carrying King’s message into the future. Watch the video interview here.


Douglas Palmer, the African American mayor of Trenton, N.J. since 1990, tells a story about an 8-year-old American girl who died recently because her mother did not have health insurance.
“How can you die in the 21st century because of an abscessed tooth?” he asks. 
For Palmer, that story—plus the country’s crumbling infrastructure, decaying family values, weak education system and excessive consumerism—means that it is finally time for King’s value revolution. While King might have been wrong on his timing, Palmer says, “quite frankly, he was right on target.” 
University of Michigan Professor Scott Kurashige agrees that King’s message is incredibly urgent. “We’ve evolved an economic model that is unsustainable in economic terms as well as in ecological terms.” Kurashige, who has written about the problems of race as they exist in America today, wonders whether recovery is even possible, and is sure that the country needs new solutions. 
King titled his last book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, and Kurashige thinks the country still faces that choice. He is optimistic that enough people believe in King’s radical revolution of values—updated for the specific problems of the 21st century—that the country will make the right choice.
The crisis is now real enough, but the question remains: What does the new president think?
Two years ago, at the dedication of the national memorial to King, then-Sen. Obama said, “for all the progress we have made, there are times when the land of our dreams recedes from us. And yet, by erecting this monument, we are reminded that this different, better place beckons us.”
Maguire remembers the waning weeks of the presidential campaign when right wing talk show hosts began using what they called the “s” word—as in “socialist”—to defame Obama. He says they were picking up on the candidate’s vision that “no one should go to bed hungry or homeless or out of work.”
Not exactly socialist, but it could be revolutionary. 

A Philosopher’s Evolution: In FLYP Media’s interactive timeline (complete with archival photographs and videos), discover how King’s interests in America’s racism, extreme materialism and militarism grew and meshed into a unified vision of a new America.

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