The Four Catastrophes

The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington has seen reflections and conversations about the nation’s progress toward achieving Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of the beloved community. Not surprisingly, the focus has been on assessing racial equality, as many know Dr. King largely for his work on this issue. Dr. King’s vision and advocacy, however, was much broader in scope. As his writings and speeches show, Dr. King was concerned about what he called “four catastrophes:” militarism, materialism, racism and poverty.

Dr. King described militarism as an “imperial catastrophe.” King, and others before him, critiqued not just the United States’ engagement in violent conflict but also the values that underlie militarism: hierarchy, obedience, discipline, and power over others. King exclaimed in his April 4, 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam,” “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”

Yet, despite Dr. King’s warnings, the U.S military remains the greatest purveyor of violence, with the largest military in the world. We spend more on our military than China, Russia, UK, France, Japan, Indian, Saudi Arabia, German and Brazil combined. The U.S. is also the leader in global weapons sales. As I write, President Obama continues to use drones to kill innocent civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and other places and is poised to authorize some form of military action in Syria.

To Dr. King, racism is a moral catastrophe. This moral catastrophe continues, as racial profiling, disparate access to education, wage differentials, and more remain intractable problems. All are exacerbated by Supreme Court decisions, such as the Court’s June 2013 announcement that “enough progress has been made” to overturn key parts of the Voting Rights Act that are intended to help ensure adequate civic participation by people of color.

Materialism, according to Dr. King, is a spiritual catastrophe. Instead of caring for one another, we are taught that it is buying things that make us who we are. Often referred to as “affluenza,” it really is like many of us are sick with the need to buy things bigger, better, faster and always, more, more, more.

Poverty is the economic catastrophe. King’s later work, fighting for worker’s rights, was what scared those in power the most. A recently released report documented the over-payment of CEOs, at the expense of laborers. Additionally, the report found that almost 40 percent of the men on the list of the 25 highest-paid corporate leaders in American between 1993 and 2012 have led companies that were bailed out by U.S. taxpayers, had been fired for poor performance, or led companies charged with some type of fraud. This while 46.2 million Americans remain in poverty.

While politicians like Sarah Palin wish that Dr. King’s dream will “always” be a reality, it is clear that we are far from actualizing his vision. And, until we move beyond seeing Dr. King as just an icon of racial equality, it will be hard to fully engage the interrelated four catastrophes he found so problematic.