As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, we are reminded that his words continue to have profound meaning. “A Testament of Hope” was published after Dr. King’s death and presents a summary of his thoughts on the inter-related issues of the fight against racism, for equality, against war, for world peace and social progress. In this essay, King reminds us that after all the pain and suffering he experienced, he was still an optimist. But more important, he informs us how he remained such:
“People are often surprised to learn that I am an optimist. They know how often I have been jailed, how frequently the days and nights have been filled with frustration and sorrow, how bitter and dangerous are my adversaries. They expect these experiences to harden me into a grim and desperate man. They fail, however, to perceive the sense of affirmation generated by the challenge of embracing struggle and surmounting obstacles.”
King’s optimism was based on his belief in the triumph of human history and the realization of social change in America based on confronting the ills of a flawed democracy:
“Man has the capacity to do right as well as wrong, and his history is a path upward, not downward. The past is strewn with the ruins of the empires of tyranny, and each is a monument not merely to man’s blunders but to his capacity to overcome them … This is why I remain an optimist, though I am also a realist, about the barriers before us. Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation that professes itself to be democratic, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich productive and awesomely powerful? The problem is so tenacious because, despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially … justice for Black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society … exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced … It is time that we stopped our blithe lip service to the guarantees of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. These fine sentiments are embodied in the Declaration of Independence, but that document was always a declaration of intent rather than of reality … to this day, Black Americans have not life, liberty nor the privilege of pursuing happiness, and millions of poor white Americans are in economic bondage that is scarcely less oppressive.”
King saw in the struggle against racism and for equality a factor important for a foreign policy of peace: fundamental respect for the dignity of other human beings. He speaks of the need for a more humane means than war to deal with world problems and national security:
“I don’t believe we can have world peace until America has an “integrated” foreign policy … we simply cannot have peace in the world without mutual respect. I think that Americans know in their hearts that their country has been terribly wrong in its dealings with other peoples around the world … the development of a humanitarian means of dealing with some of the social problems of the world – and the correlative revolution in American values that this will entail – is a much better way of protecting ourselves against the threat of violence than the military means we have chosen … bombs in Vietnam also explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.”
King notes that the Black soldier, who was disproportionately engaged in Vietnam (and now Iraq), was seeking social advancement through one of the only means available, and paid for it with his (and today her) life.
“[F]or the Negro GI, military service still represents a means of escape from the oppressive ghettos of the rural South and the urban North. He often sees the army as an avenue for educational opportunities and job training … The tragedy in this is that military service is probably the only possible escape for most young Negro men. Many of them go into the army, risking death, in order that they might have a few of the human possibilities of life.”
King writes of the birth of “a spirit of dissent that ranged from superficial disavowal of the old values to total commitment to wholesale, drastic and immediate social reform. Yet all of it was dissent. Their voice is still a minority; but … it has become a sound of distant thunder increasing in volume with the gathering of storm clouds. This dissent is America’s hope …Today’s dissenters … have left the valley of despair; they have found strength in struggle … America must change.”
We should take advantage of every opportunity to gain insight from Dr. King’s thinking.
Dee Myles is chair of the National Education Commission of the Communist Party USA. She can be reached at email@example.com
PDF version of ‘Dr. King’s last essay: A Testament of Hope’