What would Martin say? Martin Luther King and the November elections

“They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. … God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”

–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” 1956

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying, ‘Do something for others.'”
–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Good Samaritan,” 1966

Throughout his public life Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made it a point to neither publicly endorse nor publicly oppose any politician or political party. In the tradition of the biblical prophets who so influenced him, he conscientiously eschewed political partisanship and instead maintained an uncompromising stance of principled nonalignment. To this he made just one exception. Because he saw the right-wing policies espoused by the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, as a dangerous threat to the fabric of American society, King put aside his principled nonpartisanship and vigorously campaigned against the Republican nominee, declaring that it was “disastrous that the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater as its candidate for President of the United States.” He lamented:

The prospect of Senator Goldwater being President of the United States so threatened the health, morality, and survival of our nation, that I could not in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represented.

Looking back on Goldwater’s landslide loss several years later, King explained why he believed Goldwater was such a threat:

  • Extremist racial politics:

The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism. All people of goodwill viewed with alarm and concern the frenzied wedding … of the KKK with the radical right. … While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand.

  • Bellicose approach to foreign policy:

Mr. Goldwater advocated a narrow nationalism, a crippling isolationism, and a trigger-happy attitude that could plunge the whole world into the dark abyss of annihilation.

  • Economic elitism and a stated intent to unravel the social safety net:

On social and economic issues, Mr. Goldwater represented an unrealistic conservatism that was totally out of touch with the realities of the twentieth century. Mr. Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated.

  • King concluded:

In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every … person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

One of the most striking — and alarming — things about King’s denunciation of the right-wing politics of Goldwater and the Republican Party of his day is that King could — and almost certainly would — issue virtually the same denunciation of the Republican Party today. With few exceptions and with differences only in degree, the policies and political rhetoric of right-wing politicians today closely mirror the extremist policies of Barry Goldwater and the Republican Party of his day that King thought too dangerous to ignore.

More at Huffington Post.

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