Look at King's 'Own Words' Reminds Us of His Radical Moral Vision

January 20, 2011 — Celebrations of the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. tend to focus on his more tangible political accomplishments, like his "I Have a Dream" speech, the passage of the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, and his Nobel Peace Prize.

On Wednesday, an event at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, "King in His Own Words," dug deeper by examining some of King's own words and shed light on how the full extent of King's moral vision remains radical, even today, more than 40 years after his assassination in 1968.

Too often, Americans forget how all of King's accomplishments, and his ability to inspire millions to join his struggle for social justice and human rights – both during his lifetime and decades after his death – are rooted in his deep humanistic belief in the better nature of mankind, explained Michele Rubin, a literary agent for King's estate who has helped launch a new book series of his writings, the King Legacy Series from Beacon Press.

The full extent of King's moral vision still challenges today, she said.

Rooted in his life as a Baptist preacher and influenced by Gandhi and German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others, King's radical moral vision was about human dignity, the human spirit, courage and relentlessness for peace in the face of violence, Rubin said.

His radical belief in human goodness and dignity, embodied in his own life, inspired millions to risk their lives and the lives of their children to end segregation and racial injustice in American society, she said.

The gift of great leaders is to show people what's wrong and explain how people can right that wrong, said Kent Germany, a former Miller Center professor who edited the Civil Rights volume of the Presidential Recordings Series. Germany, now an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of South Carolina, played a few snippets from King's conversations with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, recorded on the White House's taping system.

King's moral vision went far beyond political struggles and legislative victories for racial justice. After the seminal civil rights victories – passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – King pivoted, speaking out against the Vietnam War and war in general, from a conviction that human rights include a right to live free from war, Rubin said.

His moral vision led him to draw attention to the afflictions of poverty by moving his family to a dilapidated neighborhood in Chicago, Rubin said. He advocated democratic socialism to achieve the radical redistribution of wealth necessary to end poverty. He talked about health care, day care, consumer debt and other issues that are now widely understood as middle-class concerns, but too often still remain obstacles to escaping poverty.

His vision became a global vision for human rights that extended far beyond race, far beyond anything America had ever seen, Rubin said. "His impact was to change not just the law, but the hearts and minds, and souls of Americans."

That's why his image as a warrior for peace and justice still reverberates around the world, she said. His influence was cited by leaders of the non-violent 1989 Velvet Revolution that overthrew communist rule of Czechoslovakia. He is a popular figure today in China among grassroots human rights activists.

However, the pieces of King's moral vision that remain radical even today, 42 years after his death – his advocacy of socialism and stances against war and poverty – are parts of his legacy that have been "airbrushed out of history," said audience member Paul Gaston, a U.Va. professor emeritus of history who took part in the Civil Rights Movement and hosted King during his 1963 visit to U.Va.

Rubin agreed, saying that the radical parts of King's legacy have been effaced by the notion that America has accomplished a sort of middle-class parity for African-Americans and other minority communities – which, he added, simply isn't true.

— By Brevy Cannon

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications