Creating “MLK + 50: A Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation”

Spiritual Roots, Political Fruit: April 4, 2017 to April 4, 2018

April 4, 2018  will be the 50th anniversary of the death — the murder — of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

April 4, 2017  will be the 50th anniversary of his speech to Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, at Riverside Church in New York. There he warned us of the “deadly triplets” of racism, militarism, and materialism that were endangering America. (And still are.)

We propose to make the year from April 4, 2017, to April 4, 2018, an American Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation — through action as well as emotional and spiritual reflection and repentance.

We intend to make it a year for renewing the struggle to end the malignant impact of racism, militarism, and materialism and to move toward what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.

The murder of Dr. King crystallized in one moment a thread of violent history in American efforts to “make America real”:

Americans have never collectively and at a spiritual level faced this part of our history, seen it as a continuing self-inflicted wound, done penance for it, and committed ourselves to work against it in all its manifestations.

If activists around the country were to take the initiative to use his Riverside speech as the beginning point a year before, it would be far more likely that the year would address Dr. King in his fullness and his focus on the root causes of American dysfunction, rather than the vanilla-washed version of him so prevalent in the mass media and official political discourse.

To begin the year: On or about April 4, 2017, everywhere in the US churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, colleges, and other community organizations hold readings of  Dr. King’s Riverside speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” along with discussion of how to apply it today.

At the heart of his speech were these words:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, 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, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.  (Read the full transcript of the Riverside Speech)

(Dr. King at the microphone at Riverside Church, April 4, 1967. Nearby are Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and a leading historian, Henry Steele Commager)

In some cities, there might be gatherings of “Clergy and Laity Concerned About America,”  echoing the “Clergy And Laity Concerned About Vietnam” whom Dr. King was addressing in 1967.

In that speech, King named the racism, militarism, and materialism that haunted and endangered America then – and still. Today, we might sadly add a fourth, sexism — making  deadly “quadruplets” afflicting America.

  • The racism he warned against has made the criminal “justice” system into a machine for repressing Black, Latino, and Native communities; has made the burning of fossil fuels a tool for spewing poison into the air and water in neighborhoods of color; has made voting laws into tools of suppressing Black and  Latino voters; and has made Muslims and Latinos into objects of hate..
  • The “materialism” he challenged encompasses three triplets of its own: the despiritualization of society; the  greedy treatment of Earth as an abusable commodity that through global scorching now threatens the whole web of life on Planet Earth; worsening inequality of wealth and income into hyper-wealth and broader, deeper poverty – a combination that deeply wounds democracy itself and corrupts our elections and political system.
  • Today we face militarism not only in an endless war of the kind that Dr. King denounced but the militarization of many urban police forces and a quasi-military system of mass incarceration. And we face the emergence of major political leaders and followers with a strong stink of fascism in their policies, their language, and their actions.
  • Today we face a wave of fear and hostility toward women who are independent-minded, who demand the right to equality at work and at home, who reject being sexually coerced or abused, who demand   the right to choose whether, when, and how to mother children; and a wave of hostility toward those who express their sexual and gender identities  in unconventional ways.

Anniversary gatherings could spark and plan continuing actions, in the spirit of Dr. King’s Riverside speech and of his actions against racism and war, his strong support for labor unions of the poor (like the garbage workers of Memphis for whom he died), and his commitment to nonviolent resistance.

During the entire year, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other community-rooted groups around the country would make the following a constant effort:

  • Arrange study groups and teach-ins to examine Dr. King’s Riverside speech and other inspired and inspiring documents like Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, and in the study process to explore how to address the issues raised there.
  • Hold monthly religious services (and perhaps monthly fasts) aiming at the religious and spiritual transformation of America beyond racism, militarism, and materialism.
  • Organize nonviolent direct action of three basic types: teach-ins or freedom schools; actions that directly challenge centers of egregious violence and oppression; and grassroots models that actually embody in the living present our vision of the kinds of future institutions (such as neighborhood solar-energy co-ops, neighborhood cultural festivals, credit unions, food co-ops, etc.) that Dr. King called the Beloved Community.

To end the year, we will issue a Call for a National Day of Action, Atonement and At-ONE-ment on April 4, 2018, together with special religious services and a myriad actions around the country to move past the “deadly triplets” of racism, militarism, and materialism. For some people, a day of fasting, with or without attendance at religious services, might seem appropriate. For others, there might be public vigils at places where racism, militarism, materialism, and sexism  are most outrageous. There might be mass demonstrations in Washington to call for action against those triplets  — now quadruplets. There might be work stoppages, teach-ins, and many other forms of nonviolent  transformation.

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