Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy against segregation and other forms of state-sponsored racism. On this national holiday honoring him, it's worth remembering that King viewed as more than mere legal racial equality. He viewed the struggle more broadly as one in favor of human dignity. This is why he did not retire from public life following legalistic victories such as Brown vs the Board of Education or the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Although legal segregation was crumbling in the last years of his life, Dr. King did not diminish his activism in any way. He merely refocused it toward another aspect of human dignity.
At the time of his assassination in 1968, King was in Memphis as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SLCC) Poor People's Campaign, where the city's garbage workers were protesting against unlivable wages. The SLCC had conceived the campaign as a way to mobilize poor people of all skin colors on behalf of a federal economic plan to rebuild American cities.
King realized that the end of state-imposed segregation would not improve the lives of black people if they remained miserably poor. In much the same way the lives of blacks in the south remained virtually unchanged long after the 'transition' from slavery to sharecropping.
King viewed the campaign part as the second phase of the civil rights' struggle. He viewed endemic poverty as a civil rights' issue.
This commitment to human dignity animated another lesser known aspect of King's work: his opposition to the Vietnam War and to militarism more broadly.
During his Beyond Vietnam speech given exactly one year before his murder, he explained why opposition to the aggression against Vietnam had entered into his activism:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men [in the ghettos of the north], I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
Americans were being shipped off to Vietnam to kill, to destroy and to die. Nothing good was happening because of this. And King knew that the war machine specifically sought those with few other economic options to serve as its cannon fodder, a situation that's little different today.
Like many social justice advocates before and since, he deplored how much of our national resources (both financial and human) was wasted on fabricating foreign enemies to obliterate. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom," he warned.
King probably realized that the fact that many young people had few other economic options was no accident, but the result of conscious policy choices made to ensure an insatiable monster created, funded and propped up by your tax dollars always had food.
(It's not the only insatiable monster but the other main one merits an entry of its own)
To restrict Dr. King's legacy to the fight for legal equality for black people is to sell him short. And it's misleads people into believing that his dream has been realized. His true struggle was the quest for human dignity for all people.
He could be no clearer about this when he concluded his Beyond Vietnam speech:
We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
If you truly want to honor him, then follow this injunction.