Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Three Evils of Society
August 31, 1967
National Conference on New Politics
“We cry out against welfare hand outs to the poor but generously approve an oil depletion allowance to make the rich, richer. Six Mississippi plantations receive more than a million dollars a year, not to plant cotton but no provision is made to feed the tenant farmer who is put out of work by the government subsidy. The crowning achievement in hypocrisy must go to those staunch Republicans and Democrats of the Midwest and West who were given land by our government when they came here as immigrants from Europe. They were given education through the land grant colleges. They were provided with agricultural agents to keep them abreast of forming trends, they were granted low interest loans to aid in the mechanization of their farms and now that they have succeeded in becoming successful, they are paid not to farm and these are the same people that now say to black people, whose ancestors were brought to this country in chains and who were emancipated in 1863 without being given land to cultivate or bread to eat; that they must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. What they truly advocate is Socialism for the rich and Capitalism for the poor.
I wish that I could say that this is just a passing phase in the cycles of our nation’s life; certainly times of war, times of reaction throughout the society but I suspect that we are now experiencing the coming to the surface of a triple prong sickness that has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning. That is the sickness of racism, excessive materialism and militarism. Not only is this our nation’s dilemma it is the plague of western civilization. As early as 1906 W. E. B Dubois prophesized that the problem of the 20th century, would be the problem of the color line, now as we stand two-thirds into this crucial period of history we know full well that racism is still that hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization. Ever since the birth of our nation, White America has had a Schizophrenic personality on the question of race, she has been torn between selves. A self in which she proudly profess the great principle of democracy and a self in which she madly practices the antithesis of democracy. This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness and ambivalence toward the Negro, causing America to take a step backwards simultaneously with every step forward on the question of Racial Justice; to be at once attracted to the Negro and repelled by him, to love and to hate him. There has never been a solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans. The step backwards has a new name today, it is called the white backlash, but the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of black power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities. The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation. This does not imply that all White Americans are racist, far from it. Many white people have, through a deep moral compulsion fought long and hard for racial justice nor does it mean that America has made no progress in her attempt to cure the body politic of the disease of racism or that the dogma of racism has been considerably modified in recent years. However for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country, even today, is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists. Racism can well be, that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on western civilization.
Arnold Toynbee has said that some twenty-six civilization have risen upon the face of the Earth, almost all of them have descended into the junk heap of destruction. The decline and fall of these civilizations, according to Toynbee, was not caused by external invasion but by internal decay. They failed to respond creatively to the challenges impingement upon them. If America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say, that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.
The second aspect of our afflicted society is extreme materialism, an Asian writer has portrayed our dilemma in candid terms, he says, “you call your thousand material devices labor saving machinery, yet you are forever busy. With the multiplying of your machinery you grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous, dissatisfied. Whatever you have you want more and where ever you are you want to go somewhere else. Your devices are neither time saving nor soul saving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business”. This tells us something about our civilization that cannot be cast aside as a prejudiced charge by an eastern thinker who is jealous of Western prosperity. We cannot escape the indictment. This does not mean that we must turn back the clock of scientific progress. No one can overlook the wonders that science has wrought for our lives. The automobile will not abdicate in favor of the horse and buggy or the train in favor of the stage coach or the tractor in favor of the hand plow or the scientific method in favor of ignorance and superstition. But our moral lag must be redeemed; when scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. When we foolishly maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum we sign the warrant for our own day of doom.It is this moral lag in our thing-oriented society that blinds us to the human reality around us and encourages us in the greed and exploitation which creates the sector of poverty in the midst of wealth. Again we have diluted ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard word and sacrifice, the fact is that Capitalism was build on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad. If Negroes and poor whites do not participate in the free flow of wealth within our economy, they will forever be poor, giving their energies, their talents and their limited funds to the consumer market but reaping few benefits and services in return. The way to end poverty is to end the exploitation of the poor, ensure them a fair share of the government services and the nation’s resources. I proposed recently that a national agency be established to provide employment for everyone needing it. Nothing is more socially inexcusable than unemployment in this age. In the 30s when the nation was bankrupt it instituted such an agency, the WPA, in the present conditions of a nation glutted with resources, it is barbarous to condemn people desiring work to soul sapping inactivity and poverty. I am convinced that even this one, massive act of concern will do more than all the state police and armies of the nation to quell riots and still hatreds. The tragedy is, our materialistic culture does not possess the statesmanship necessary to do it.