Martin Luther King and the battles that outlived him

50 years on, the three evils MLK talked about -racism, militarism and economic exploitation – still plagues the US.

March King Reuters
People gather to march in the annual parade down MLK Boulevard to honour Martin Luther King, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, US [Reuters]

April 4 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Although five full decades have passed since the American civil rights leader was martyred in 1968, his words are just as relevant today, if not more relevant than ever in the age of Donald Trump. King was prophetic in his assessment of America’s problems – his condemnation of the triple evils of racism, militarism and economic exploitation – and his prescription for change, including a “radical redistribution of economic and political power” to bring about racial and economic justice.   

Today, America has not overcome these triple evils, these forms of oppression that are interrelated and create a vicious cycle.

The election of Trump represented a racial backlash on the part of aggrieved whites who resented the changes afoot in society. Barack Obama, the first African American president, was a nightmare for some, as he represented black power in a nation built for white men, occupying a White House once intended as a whites only space in perpetuity. People of colour are emerging as a national majority in the coming few decades, and brown and black babies already constitute the majority of children born in the US today.

Trump promised to return angry white America to the pre-civil rights era, when white people reigned supreme in the land of the free. This would seem an impossible feat, and yet if Trump were to accomplish this, he could do so only through policies of violence – whether through voter suppression, police violence and mass incarceration against black people, law enforcement crackdowns and mass deportations of Latino and other immigrants, or travel bans and the ostracisation of Muslims.


“Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct?” King asked. “A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.”

As Trump enacts measures to uphold white supremacy, he empowers the neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other “very fine people”as he calls them to commit acts of violence. White supremacists are the most serious source of domestic attacks in the US, responsible for 71 percent of domestic extremist-related killings over the past decade.

Exactly a year before he was assassinated, on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, Dr King broke his silence on the Vietnam War. In that speech, he called the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” King’s words have stood the test the time.

US military spending amounts to 54 percent of the federal discretionary budget at $700bn for 2018. America has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but as much as half of the world’s civilian gun supply, ranking first in firearms per capita, and first among the advanced nations in firearm-related homicides.

The recent brutal killing of Stephon Clark – who was shot eight times, mostly in the back, by Sacramento, California police while in his grandmother’s backyard – and the recent failure of state and federal prosecutors to indict Baton Rouge, Louisiana police officers in the 2016 shooting death of Alton Sterling speak to the continuing crisis of police brutality in communities of colour.  

However, the US also exports its violence to foreign countries. For example, the US government provides billions of dollars in military aid to Israel, which that country uses to maintain its occupation of the Palestinian people, a human rights catastrophe. Most recently, the Israeli Defense Forces fired live ammunition on a peaceful protest of 30,000 Palestinians during the Great March of Return in Gaza, with snipers shooting unarmed people in the back and killing 18 and wounding as many as 1,700. The massacre caused some observers to make comparisons to the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre and the 1976 Soweto youth uprising in apartheid South Africa.


Although the US has the world’s largest military and the largest economy, it also suffers from the most inequality and poverty among the advanced nations – with 40 million Americans living in poverty, and inequality rivaling pre-Great Depression-era levels. The top 1 percent now has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. “Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice,” King said. “The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.”

The Republican-controlled government in Washington has tightened the screws even further with a massive tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and corporations, and a corrupt system of politics that rewards lobbyists and politicians, yet fails to meet the needs of its people. This, as thousands of teachers in Republican-controlled states such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma have waged massive strikes and walkouts. This “red state revolt” in protest of low education spending and teacher salaries is only part of a greater movement of activism – from Black Lives Matter to students fighting for gun control to women and the #MeToo movement. This level of opposition to Trump’s policies – and activism this country has not seen since the days of the civil rights movement King helped lead – is reassuring.   

Martin Luther King said the US would have to “undergo a radical revolution of values” that would cause the country to question the fairness and justice of its past and present policies, its glaring economic inequality, and the spiritual death that comes with spending more on the military than programs of social uplift.    

“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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” Fifty years after King’s assassination, there is still much work to do.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.