By Nancy Price
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” of August 1963, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, is the most widely known of his speeches, and is remembered every year on his birthday, Jan. 15.
But King’s most revolutionary speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” was given on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City, a year before he died. It seems relevant today as it marked his movement from civil rights to a critique of unbridled capitalism and war.
Bear in mind that King spoke at the time of the Vietnam war and the threat of Chinese communism spreading into Southeast Asia. Most broadly, he questioned a foreign policy based on interventions overseas, repression of war critics, and of colonialism and imperialism driven by resource extraction in other countries.
As he declared: “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.”
He called for a “revolution of values,” a shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. And he called for a vision of “a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation.”
King cautioned: “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
While “spiritual death” may be true for today’s ruling corporate and military elite, a vibrant spirit animates the global environmental justice movement, for example, which is calling for a revolution in values.
This movement largely grew out of environmental policies that permitted corporate harm to people’s health from extreme air, land and water pollution by siting toxic dumps, incinerators, highways and factories in low-income and minority communities. The environmental justice movement calls for an end to this racism.
Additionally, climate justice advocates make clear that solutions to climate change cannot just be technical to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2, but that we must move toward a new economic system based on human rights and social, economic, environmental and climate justice for all.
The values of this new economic system are embodied in the concept of “living well,” or “vivir bien,” elaborated back in April 2010 by Evo Morales Ayma, then president of Bolivia, at the World People’s Summit on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The concept later was introduced at the United Nations.
Shortly thereafter, this concept was brought into the “Declaration” adopted by the Ecojustice People’s Movement Assembly at the June 2010 U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, which stated: “We support … that only by ‘living well,’ in harmony with each other and with Mother Earth, rather than ‘living better,’ based on an economic system of unlimited growth, dominance and exploitation, will the people of this planet not only survive but thrive.”
Such a view demands that we realize that the natural world is part of “the commons” — that is, public, non-private “resources” of benefit to us all.
It is not just today’s environmental and climate crises that have focused new attention on the concept of “the commons.” At this stage of globalization when corporate managers and investors want to commodify, privatize and profit from almost every aspect of nature and of cultural creation, people are asking: What should be part of the commons?
There is a long legal and cultural history concerning what aspects of nature and culture might be considered public, held in common for common use or private property. We must ask ourselves, what strategies do we have to “reclaim” the commons that have been taken for private use and profit?
How do we, for example, challenge private energy and pipeline corporations that claim eminent domain, backed up by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to take an individual’s private property for pipelines and energy infrastructure? How do we challenge this administration that wants to open our public lands to private energy exploration and development?
With the understanding that many in state and federal government receive campaign donation from energy corporations, if we can pass laws to protect “the commons,” should we have a popular vote on how our public lands, our public commons, are used?
Furthermore, how do we conserve “the commons” for future generations, and what principles should apply to the use, sharing, management and allocation of any income from “the commons”?
These are just some questions to consider as we undertake a nonviolent revolution of values to move beyond this stage of unbridled capitalism wedded to deregulation that is leading us to environmental and climate catastrophe.
King, I am sure, would be asking these and many more questions today in calling for a long-overdue “revolution of values” to combat the triplets of “racism, materialism and militarism” and move toward “living well.”
— Nancy Price, a Davis resident, is co-chair of the Alliance for Democracy. Find out more at www.thealliancefordemocracy.org
Watch an Interview with Rev. Dr. William Barber on Democracy Now
Listen to an eloquent interview with Vincent Harding, one of King’s longtime friends and civil rights colleagues, who wrote this King speech and believes it drew the bullet that killed King on the same day just one year later. Harding is also the author of “Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero.”