Democratic aspirations

“What is the citizen’s right of participation,” King asked the U.S. Senate (December 1966), “in the decisions that so directly affect his community? Are these decisions to be made by professional elites?” Government by the people, of the people, for the people was needed, especially in public bureaucracies like schools and medical institutions, that “involves the citizen in new and significant ways.”

The “enhanced role of the citizen,” he suggested, “may be as vital as additional money to the reemergence of the city as the springboard of hope for its populace.” Democratizing bureaucracies, he believed, might be the only way to humanize them, forcing them to treat their clients as persons. More than ever he was embracing the ethos of participatory democracy that was the zeitgeist of the 1960s. [343]

Human rights revolution

“The great glory of American democracy,” King said many times, “is the right to protest for right.” The right to protest was authorized by the rightness or justice of the moral aim, not simply as a constitutional right. “It is morally right,” he wrote in his last book, “to insist that every person have a decent house, an adequate education, and enough money to provide basic necessities for one’s family.” Rights could no longer be traded off or compartmentalized. They were a body, indivisible, as illustrated by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which Malcolm X had tied his kite to.

All people had human rights, King now believed, because they were children of God. No further justification was needed. By 1967 he was calling for a full-blown human rights movement, a “human rights revolution” that would place economic justice at the center.
The aim of the human rights movement would be to achieve genuine integration—meaning shared power—and genuine equality, requiring a “radical redistribution of economic and political power.”

“For the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement,” he pointed out to his staff in May 1967. But “after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution. We must see the great distinction between a reform movement and a revolutionary movement. We are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.” The rules must be changed. There must be a revolution of values. Only by reallocating and redefining power would it be possible to wipe out the triple interlocking evils of racism, exploitation, and militarism.

“You really can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the others,” he said. “Jesus confronted this problem of the interrelatedness of evil one day.” A rich man named Nicodemus came to Jesus and asked, what must I do to be saved?

“Jesus didn’t get bogged down in a specific evil. He didn’t say, now Nicodemus you must not drink liquor. He didn’t say, Nicodemus you must not commit adultery. He didn’t say, Nicodemus you must not lie. He didn’t say, Nicodemus you must not steal. He said, Nicodemus you must be born again. Nicodemus, the whole structure of your life must be changed.

“What America must be told today is that she must be born again. The whole structure of American life must be changed.” [324-25]

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