Dear Friend,

Today, we celebrate a socio-spiritual legacy of a renowned national leader whose voice has been all but forgotten. Even those who lionize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tend to downplay his significance, the prescience of his teachings, and the relevance today of what he endured as an activist and organizer promoting peace and fairness in the face of “intersecting evils” that he specifically named. Three aspects of MLK’s legacy are especially important for us today to remember.

The FBI

First, Dr. King’s experience offered insight into the precursors of the Snowden revelations, 45 years after his assassination. King was pursued mercilessly by the FBI, which targeted him for political surveillance, surreptitiously recorded his conversations, blackmailed him, and tried to drive him to an early grave. Beyond him, our government targeted the entire movement for civil rights, as well as many others.

Today, driven by ham-fisted and knee-jerk reactions to intervening national security crises like the 9/11 attacks, our government’s surveillance tools are vastly more robust, equally unaccountable, and (at least in some cases) subject to the same politicization that MLK suffered.

As we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy, we should consider what his life indicated about the threats that grew in the wake of his assassination. The national security state, its ever-expanding tentacles, the bipartisan support for domestic intelligence powers, and the threat it presents to dissent and democracy have only grown in the years since Dr. King was taken from us.

Fascism

Beyond the FBI, Dr. King also confronted his share of critics among white supremacists, whose power and reach have also grown immeasurably since his time.

The assault on the Capitol on January 6 represents the historical high watermark of the same cultural forces that vilified Dr. King.

One measure of our progress may be that Dr. King’s critics had the unfortunate support of many moderates—and even self-described liberals—of his era. Today, at least, our establishment has arrayed itself against the white supremacy apparent in the attacks.

Yet still, too many comfortable voices continue to choose the path of supporting of order over justice, which King correctly described as the crux on which injustice rests.

The climate crisis

Among the many aspects of Dr. King’s legacy, none has been more overlooked than his foresight with respect to the global climate crisis. King specifically named three “intersecting evils,” each of which has played a crucial role in enabling an existential risk confronting our species.

At the intersection of capitalism, racism, and militarism is precisely the set of international social forces that drove the climate crisis. Corporate resource extraction is directly driven by capitalism, but also implicates both racism and militarism, as well.

The racism of corporate fossil fuel development, in particular, is most visibly demonstrated by projects that violate indigenous rights. The Keystone XL Pipeline offers a prominent contemporary example, and we’re grateful for indications from the incoming administration that Biden plans to cancel the project’s permit on his first day in office. That cancellation remains an exception to the continuing rule of deference to fossil fuel industries, which continue to place private profit before the public interest in sustainability.

Corporate resource extraction has also, in our history, unfortunately relied on militarism. Wars for oil may offer an obvious example, but our nation’s pattern of invading other countries to seize their resources is unfortunately even longer standing. In dozens of instances over the past 75 years, our military industrial complex (acting most frequently through not the Department of Defense, but the CIA) has destabilized democracies in order to seize natural resources as mundane as bananas & pineapples.

His legacy

We honor Dr. King as more than merely a renowned historical civil rights leader. He was a grassroots organizer whose life and struggles unfortunately revealed constitutional challenges that we have yet to overcome. He was also a world-historical visionary who saw the future, and tried to warn us from continuing to stumble blindly down the racist path of militarism and corporate rule.

Whatever you do today to honor Dr. King, we invite you to re-double your organizing efforts tomorrow, and beyond. While today’s holiday offers a fitting opportunity for commemoration, the greatest homage we can pay is action inspired by Dr. King’s timeless principles.