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Martin Luther King: What Compels Us Defines Us

What Compels Us Defines Us

Image from "Culture Unseen."

Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Observance

On this national holiday, we are often presented with a version of Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that is whitewashed beyond recognition. He is rightfully known for peaceful protest in the face of state terrorism, arrest, imprisonment, and torture. Most of which was at the hands of government officials with the blessings of the local populace. We must never forget this point. What Dr. King, his companions, and others in the movement encountered was sanctioned by a system that saw Black people as less than human for most of our time on this continent.

Race and Terror

There was no regard for our bondage and the forced labor that is the foundation of wealth in this country. This capital has built the richest and most powerful country in human history. The treatment of Black people in this country since emancipation has always been about maintaining our inability to access our fair share of this wealth and the associated power. Race is merely a guide for who deserves this access in our society.

The cruelty and terror of this system were symptoms of greater social illness—greed. Less for People of Color meant more for White people. Especially, the monied elites. Poor White folk were the foot soldiers for this war on Black people. But, make no mistake, the wealthy and powerful elites were the generals. They assured their troops suffered no adverse consequences for the looting, burning, and hanging that they heaped upon Black people. In fact, they were often rewarded. These statements are not meant to exonerate those that participated in this reign of terror. Merely to show the reader how the pieces fit together.


After major Civil Rights legislation had passed, Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that he had underestimated the depths of the evil in this system. How wars to build the empire, economic injustice for all people, and the plight of Black people in America were all inextricably linked. The greed of a few outweighed the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” of the many. That is why he spoke out against the Vietnam War and began his Poor People’s Campaign.

This incarnation of Martin Luther King, Jr. could not be tolerated by the “powers that be.” He died on a hotel balcony in Memphis as he was helping sanitation strikers gain fair wages and benefits—an economic issue.


That is what drove him to risk his life. That is what this holiday should be about. Not just a single stanza from what was truly a revolutionary speech. Remember that speech was not the culmination of just any march. It was a march for “Jobs and Freedom.” There is no freedom without economic justice. The two are inseparable.

Dr. King knew a truth that is often overlooked about us humans: What compels us defines us. I want us all to be compelled by what moved Dr. King near the time of his death. Be compelled by peace. Be compelled by love. Be compelled by decent paying jobs for all. Be compelled by healthcare as a right. Be compelled by clean water.

Above all, be compelled by Justice.

Written by Michael Graham

Son, Brother, Husband, Father, Grandfather, Veteran, Social Justice Warrior. City by birth, Country by default. Follow Michael on Twitter @BLUpfront.

Michael Graham is a Senior Writer for Progressive Army.

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Martin Luther King: What Compels Us Defines Us