The Task Ahead: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution”

Posted on January 15, 2013


From January 16, 2012:

Yesterday President Obama and his family celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday at the historic Zion Baptist Church in Washington, DC. While there, the Obamas listened to the Deacon read passages from Dr. King’s seminal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”[1] Yet, I wonder if the President was aware of the address that Dr. King delivered to the congregation at Washington DC’s National Cathedral Episcopal Church forty-four years earlier? There, Dr. King contextualized the 1960s social movements within the triple revolutions in technology and work, weaponry, and politics. He also informed his listeners of his plans to bring an “interracial movement of the poor” to Washington to protest poverty.[2] Most importantly, Dr. King told the congregation to remain aware of the turbulence around them. He warned them not fall asleep because while they were living in a tumultuous moment, crisis bred opportunity for social change. It was up to them to “develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses—that the new situation demands.”[3] This is our task now.

Dr. King’s ominous warnings remain relevant today. I hesitate to use his concept of the , “triple revolutions,” but I identify two crises—political and economic—and one transformative movement—the 2011 global democratic uprisings.

We remain embroiled in an epic economic crisis. The U.S. economy is sputtering at best and more Americans are experiencing more financial hardship. This instability has its roots in the economic stagnation and crises during the mid-1970s. Over the last twenty years, the richest 1% of the population has seen an increase in their incomes by 33% in the midst of middle-class wage stagnation.[4] The unemployment rate remains above 8%. A recent study published out of Indiana University reports that 46 million Americans live below the poverty line—a 27% increase since the start of the Great Recession.[5] Astonishingly, according to the most recent U.S. Census data, half of the U.S. population is either poor or low-income.[6] According to the Pew Research Center, the wealth gap between blacks and Latinos and white Americans has increased to record proportions. The wealth of white households is 20 times that of black Americans and 18 times that of Hispanics since the Great Recession.[7]

Unfortunately, part of the work of the neoliberal political-economic order (1975—present), one comprising both Democrats (like Bill Clinton) and Republicans, is to rationalize these aforementioned consequences. Some may be familiar with the neoliberals’ use of privatization, deregulation, and austerity in the reconstruction of the economy around finance and corporations, the rollback of workers’ rights, and the shredding of the social safety net over the last forty years. In the meantime, these ideas became common sense. Consequently, the deplorable outcomes that I described above, which were often enabled by “public” policy, were justified through individualistic and behavioral explanations of success and failure—the other side of the rugged individualist coin (with the bootstrap philosophy representing one side) that Dr. King criticized in his last sermon.[8] And one should look no farther than to the housing crisis of the 2000s as evidence of this type of political, economic, and cultural work. The subprime mortgage crisis, wrought by both the public and private sectors, represents the convergence of Americans’ desires to achieve the “American Dream” in what one U.S. President deemed as the “ownership society” with the drive for profit, accumulation of that profit, and the production of “bubbles” (which eventually “pops”) and “booms” (which eventually “slumps”) embedded in our economic system.[9]

We also live in political crisis. Routine government tasks are turned into political theater and sideshow:  President Obama agreed to cut $40 in the budget in order to avoid a government shut-down in April.[10] Last August’s federal debt crisis and the downgrading of the U.S.’s credit rating (an action which some observers cite as political) represents most obvious example of Washington gridlock.** The bipartisan, and extra-democratic, super-committee, a committee charged to administer further austerity—an extra $1.2 trillion dollars in savings–failed to compromise, thus triggering further mandatory cuts in government spending.[11] This political crisis not only compounds Americans’ economic insecurities, it exacerbates the righteous cynicism and further illustrates the farce that is American politics.  We must stay awake.


–And Dr. King’s words “we are tied together in the single garment of destiny” have not ringed so true.

Just as Dr. King cited in 1968, we are also living in the midst of a global democratic uprising. After years of organizing and protesting in Egypt and Tunisia, Egyptians and Tunisians toppled dictators in their countries during the Arab Spring. Rebels in Libya successfully forced Muammar Gaddafi out of power. The protests of Arab Spring infused inspiration into the ongoing protests in Europe and the United States. People in Greece, Spain, and England took to the streets to protest the austere measures that their governments imposed upon them. Hundreds in Ohio and thousands in Wisconsin responded to anti-labor legislation by filling their statehouses, marching, and organizing ballot initiatives.

Then, of course, one cannot forget those who filled Zuccotti Park in NYC’s Wall Street district in September. Inspired by similar multiracial (yet spearheaded by people of color) movements in Oakland and bolstered by prior organizing, the protestors in Zuccotti Park gathered to reclaim space and to exercise their right to condemn the products of late-twentieth and early-twenty-first (finance) capitalism:  a neoliberalism that seeks to destroy anything public, the bastardization of the political process where politicians on both sides of the aisle are wed to corporate and finance interests, the degradation of the nation’s working- and middle-classes, and extreme economic inequality. The occupy movement’s tactics and super-democratic structure mystified Mayor Bloomberg, the US’s leaders, and the media with its desire for self-determination—in this case, the ability to define and articulate their own grievances and agendas. They actually hijacked time and spaces—“We are going to sit in this park and work on our own timetable, not yours”–they virtually told leaders. Similar to Dr. King, they worked (and still do) to “develop the new attitudes” and “the new mental processes” that the time called for, not for the types of compromises that those in power would have demanded. And while the discussion of the movement has seemed to die down in the mainstream US media, the occupy movement has forced the issue of income and wealth inequality back onto the table.


Dr. King argues for a “revolution in values” in the final chapter in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here:  Chaos or Community? He urges his readers to confront the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”[12] He also encourages his readers to think beyond the era’s economic and political common sense. Dr. King’s argument for a “revolution in values” remains salient when considering the gravity of these crises and the ongoing uprisings. US politics straddles the line between the comical and the catastrophic. If we are lucky, our politicians can produce a compromise. We are luckier if both parties walk away partly satisfied. The US government is structured in a way to produce compromise and it signals trouble when the government continues to fail. The more pressing question becomes, though, what happens with both the public and the private sector fail us?

The economic thinking is bankrupt (no pun). Keynesian economics could not pull us out of the crises of the mid-1970s and the various shades of supply-side economics, whether it’s the combination of tax cuts and stimulus spending that President Obama and the Democrats offer, or the combination of tax cuts and austerity that the Republicans propose cannot rescue us now. The bailouts of all sorts have only exacerbated Americans’ frustrations because they perceive their money to be going to undeserving corporations and financiers. There seem to be few winners. We are in serious need of “new attitudes” and “new mental processes” and strong politics because no revolution in values will occur without intense political organizing and action and the acquisition of political power. But first we have to believe that we can think beyond the political and economic common sense of our time.

What is obvious is that we are living in a moment where everyone—politicians, elites in every sector, and citizens—are struggling to understand the changes before us. But we must pay attention to what is occurring beneath the surface –particular groups seek to bend those changes in a direction that speaks to particular interests. We cannot fall asleep now because those of us who remain optimistic also know, as King concluded his last sermon, “We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[13]

I almost wonder what President Obama was thinking as he sat 3 miles away from the National Cathedral Episcopal Church. But, really, what President Obama was thinking is irrelevant. What he and the Republicans say about Dr. King’s memory and about our possibilities are also irrelevant. What is more important on this Martin Luther King Day, and this period of intense crisis and change is which Dr. King do we think of—the sanitized dreamer or the revolutionary dreamer? How do we think about crisis and change? Do we approach our period cynically—a view that maps on to the Democrat and Republican view of the world where we must accept a slight change in the order of things, at most, or will we choose to see it in the manner that Dr. King would—a once in a generation opportunity to rise to the occasion and further develop our political, economic, and cultural thinking and practice?

Stay awake.



[1] “Obamas Celebrate MLK’s Birthday at Zion Baptist Church,” Huffington Post, 15 January 2012.

[2] Thomas Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights:  Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 19.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” in A Testament of Hope:  The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by James M. Washington (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 1986), 269.

[4] “How the Middle Class Became the Underclass,” CNN Money, 16 February 2011.

[5] “Poverty in American Likely to Get Worse,” The Guardian UK, 11 January 2012.

[6] “Census data: half of US poor or low income,” CBS News, 15 December 2011.

[7] “Wealth Gap Rises to Record Highs between Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics:  Twenty-to-One,” Pew Center Research Publications, 26 July 2011.

The Pew Center based their conclusions on 2009 statistics. I am also using their designation, “Hispanic,” a term which really obscures various ethnic/national/racial groups who may choose to identify themselves by a more immediate racial, ethnic, or national category.

[8] Dr. King stated, “Now there is another myth that still gets around; it is a kind of overreliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who will still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.” See A Testament of Hope, 271.

[9] “End of the Ownership Society,” The Daily Beast/Newsweek, 10 October 2008.

[10] “US Politics 2011 Review,” Telegraph UK, 16 January 2012.

**Also, nine European nations, including France, had their ratings cut today. And it looks like Greece is heading for bankruptcy, which may have ramifications on the global economy. See, “World stocks mixed after France, 8 other nations are slapped with credit downgrades,” Washington Post, 15 Janurary 2012.

[11] Ironically, $600 billion would be cut from the military budget. “What the failure of the super-committee means,” SF Gate, 29 November 2011.

[12] Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here:  Chaos or Community?  (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1967), 186.

[13] A Testament of Hope, 277.

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