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    The Pandemic and Protests Underscore the Relevance of King’s Philosophy

    June 19, 2020

    This post is part of our Social Impact Summer Series. Initiated by The Institute for Social Justice Inquiry and Praxis and the Faculty Blog editorial team, the Series is meant to facilitate timely reflections and commentaries on unfolding events and to provide space for our faculty colleagues to strategize and coordinate efforts as we work toward freedom for ourselves, our students, and our communities.

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    The world perspective Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated in “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” (1967) represents a philosophical cornerstone of his work.  Today, in our time of crisis, domestic and global, we are reminded more than ever that “all life is interrelated.” 

    The alarming violence against African Americans and the persistence of inequality and systematic racism indicate, every week and every year, that the progress of the Civil Rights Movement can be eroded, and that new threats to human rights and dignity are connected to what King called the “triple evils”:  racism, poverty, and war.  In 1958, King spoke about racial inequality in the justice system in Alabama, where five years later he would be arrested and would pen his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  In the incomparable “Where Do We Go From Here?,” he explained the connection between the plantation and the ghetto, to which he would undoubtedly link the prison system. 

    By the fifties and sixties, King had seen it all, one might say, but it is painful to imagine through his eyes the injustices committed against African Americans, thirty and fifty years after his assassination, from Rodney King to Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd—and thousands of other victims and survivors in between.  If he were alive today, he would fully support Black Lives Matter, but he would be dismayed that the movement still must demand basic human justice, when our society should be so much further along, demanding that black lives experience equality in terms of education, careers, and healthcare, as well as economic access and reparations.

    Crises are forceful reminders that “whatever affects one directly, affects others indirectly,” as King wrote, concluding that “we are all made to live together because of this interrelated structure of reality.”  As is well known, King sought to form alliances between the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War protests, and the struggle for the rights of Latinos and farm workers, led by Cesar Chavez.  He linked poverty in India to poverty in America, the discrimination against Black Americans to the discrimination against Dalit communities, known disparagingly as “untouchables.”  The Independence Movement in Africa inspired the Civil Rights Movement in America, bringing W.E.B. Du Bois, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Kwame Toure, and King to Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African nation to break the bonds of colonial rule.  Witnessing accelerated economic exploitation on a global scale, he offered a prescient warning on the potential, and the fragility, of planetary interdependence. 

    Despite efforts to fortify physical borders, so many borders between humans are psychological borders, attempts to conceal phobias and delusions.  Whether we consider the current coronavirus pandemic, police violence, the oppression of immigrants, or the greed that sparked the global financial meltdown of 2008, we realize that crises bring into stark relief dangerous inequalities in the United States and the world, as well as the interrelatedness all peoples, and of the struggles against oppression and poverty on a global scale.  King would refine the formulation of the “triple evils,” using the terms “militarism” and “excessive materialism,” in addition to racism, which would potentially “bring down the curtain on Western civilization.”  While in recent decades educators have challenged Eurocentric conceptions of “Western civilization,” in favor of intercultural and inclusive perspectives on society and culture, in recent years the country has witnessed grave assaults against the pillars of progress: democratic institutions, the free press, civil society, and human rights.

    For many years I have had the privilege of leading discussions in my classes at Morehouse College and watching students take to heart King’s perspective on the ethical responsibility of the human community: “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.”  As African Americans and as community leaders, students are currently in turmoil, but they recognize the international importance of their cause and the need for Morehouse’s leadership.  Protests, from Atlanta to Pretoria to Rio, demanding that black lives matter, signal that we can hold onto the hope that present and future generations will be in a position to effect the change, the systematic “restructuring,” that was the dream of Martin Luther King.          

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    Michael Janis is Associate Professor of English at Morehouse College. Author of Africa After Modernism: Transitions in Literature, Philosophy, and Media and various essays on Africana literature and culture, he teaches Literary Theory, West African Fiction and Film, World Literature, Immigrant Voices, and Composition.

     

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