- Greggory Moore
Martin Luther King, Jr., who was murdered when I was a week old, was my first hero. The simple righteousness of his struggle was apparent even to a child who still counted his age in single digits, at least if that child was not misprogrammed by bigotry. You can’t justly treat someone as lesser, I reasoned, just because she was born with darker skin.
What I was too young to understand—at least in the way King was presented to me at the time—was that King’s righteous fight went far deeper than matters of the skin.
It is a stroke of chronological good fortune that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day does not fall within Black History Month, because King’s cause, while reified as the call for Black equality, had far broader horizons. As a Black American living in the South during the height and heat of Jim Crow, it was natural for King to focus his fight against equality on the battle that hit him where he lived. But King did not advocate merely for Black equality: he preached against inequity, period, wherever it be found, in whatever guise.
That is why, despite the immense progress made regarding people with King’s pigmentation being treated the same as people with mine, King would be little more satisfied with society today, finding almost as much inequity 45 years after his death as he found during his too brief life.
Perhaps the most glaring inequity in early-21st-century American society is found in the plight of the poor. Not that this is something new. So obvious was this particular inequity that in the last years of his life King channeled some of his energy in this direction, hitting the issue head-on in his final book, 1967’s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
No doubt, then, that King would be distressed to find that, in the war against inequity, we are losing the battle against poverty, with the gap between the wealthy and the poor wider than ever.
Unlike issues related to skin color, when it comes to economics, in a free society—where inevitably you get some sort of free market—true equality is not the goal. True economic equality may not even be possible in any society larger and more complex than a kibbutz. But there is a world of difference between absolute economic parity and the existence of predatory corporations that break the law, swindle the general public, and get government assistance and tax loopholes to help them do it—with their CEOs pulling down eight-digit salaries in the process—while millions of Americans cannot properly feed and shelter themselves.
King would be horrified at this inequity, but not all that surprised. Words he wrote in 1967 demonstrate his plain understanding that the seeds for today’s bumper crop of economic inequity had already been sown and were bearing poisonous fruit:
The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity.
There are, of course, additional societal inequities, including the treatment of the millions of “undocumented” Mexican immigrants living among us. No doubt King would have fought for the eradication of inequity on this front, viewing its redress as no less an American responsibility for the fact that those directly subject to this particular inequity are not technically citizens of the United States.
The reason citizenship would have made no difference to King can be extrapolated from his religious faith. Like most Americans, King was a theist, and the Supreme Being of King’s conception no more observed the human-made distinctions between “Mexican citizen” and “American citizen” than He did between “Black person” and “White person.” All are God’s creatures, perhaps distinguished by the content their character, but certainly not by the color of their skin or on which side of a line they were born.
Nor, I am sure, by what particular secondary sexual characteristics individuals develop or what they do with them with other consenting adults. Apropos of this last category is an exchange I witnessed in 1991 during a protest rally against then-Governor Pete Wilson for his veto of AB101, a proposed California law that would have prevented institutional workplace discrimination against homosexuals. As I stood on the sidewalk, too timid to join the protest I so completely supported, I looked on as a group of Black men right in front of me jeered at the marchers. One of the marchers approached, trying to reason with the group. “We are the same,” the man said. “Our struggle is the same as yours was. Martin Luther King preached equality for all.” Over two decades later, I can recall not just the words but also the disdainful tone and intonation of the reply: “Martin Luther King didn’t use no K-Y Jelly.”
The Reverend King’s Bible read just like everyone else’s, condemning “a man [who] lies with a man as one lies with a woman” to death (Leviticus 20:13). But that same Bible clearly endorses slavery (see, for example, Leviticus 25:44), which is about as clear an inequity as can be had. Obviously King rejected such inequity, no doubt understanding the Bible as, however divinely inspired, the product of a particular time and place which, like all times and place, accommodated ignorance and inequities that were to be transcended by ever more enlightened thinking.
King’s chief contribution to enlightenment was his powerful testimony about and against inequity. Although the battleground against inequity may have shifted, the wider war continues to rage. And King’s crusade for the extirpation of inequity was, is, and always will be righteous, even holy. Inequity should be fought wherever where it is found, and this fight should not relent until all trace of such evil is wiped from the Earth.
Three years after King’s death, philosopher John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, wherein he developed the idea that the best vantage point from which we could design an equitable society would be a place where none of us who would go on to inhabit that society would have foreknowledge of the social position each of us would occupy. ” Among the essential features of this situation,” Rawls writes,
is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain. For given the circumstances of the original position, the symmetry of everyone’s relation to each other, this initial situation is fair between individuals as moral persons, that is, as rational beings with their own ends and capable, I shall assume, of a sense of justice.
Clearly this is a thought experiment, as society is a process that each of us enters in medias res. But it is a thought experiment of which King would have wholly approved, distilling as it does an ingredient central to the realization of societal equity. And no doubt King would have encountered the phrase “the symmetry of everyone’s relation to each other” as a concise formulation of his own belief in each person’s inherent value, an inherency distributed equally to all persons, a divine apportionment that must be honored by a society that is fair and just.
Yesterday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wrote that King “believed in the inherent and fundamental equality of all people—that every man, woman and child should be treated fairly no matter the color of their skin.” Certainly Gov. Cuomo is correct, but he would have done better to place the period after “fairly” instead of unnecessarily narrowing the scope of King’s mission. We all know King championed the cause of Black Americans; what many overlook is that this was merely the battle against inequity closest to home, a fight that was literally brought to him.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great warrior, and that which he dreamed of having fall under his sword ranged far beyond matters related to skin color. Inequity was his nemesis, in all its myriad forms. Let that fight be his legacy, and let us carry it forward. The King is dead. Love live the King.
(Photo of sculptor Lei Yixin’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington DC taken by the Nat’l Park Service)