Over 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., said of the United States in his crucial “Beyond Vietnam” speech that: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
If we take King’s words seriously today, the US appears to be in a zombie state.
One year into the Biden administration, the US still faces massive unresolved, interlocking crises around the COVID pandemic, climate emergency, and economic insecurity. But the status of Biden’s flagship Build Back Better agenda (BBB) for infrastructure and social spending, which would commit $170 billion per year to begin addressing these crises at scale, remains uncertain, blocked in the Senate by disingenuous claims that it is too expensive.
Meanwhile, the ever-bloated National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) breezed through Congress over the holidays, with a whopping $778 billion for the Pentagon in 2022. While millions of people struggle to stay afloat, the US military is well on track to have the largest budget since World War II.
These two bills represent opposite views of how to address the crises of our time: a moral budget vs. a war budget. Comparing their status exposes the lie of scarcity. While Congress stalls the BBB, they rubber-stamp the NDAA, which is four times more expensive.
Half a century after King organized to force a moral reckoning around civil rights, the three evils he identified as racism, economic exploitation, and militarism, are still raging in the United States — while the basic gains of the civil rights era are under attack from new waves of voter suppression that subvert the potential to achieve a democracy that works for all.
On MLK Day this year, it’s worth remembering not just King’s sharp diagnosis of American society’s ills, but also his prescription for transformative social change. King was a committed internationalist who keenly observed anti-colonial freedom struggles around the world, and used them as inspiration for campaigns for universal economic and civil rights within the United States.
The major crises we face today, like pandemics and climate change, transcend borders, and require international collaboration on collective solutions. It’s necessary to envision a coherent global order that makes real peace and justice possible, and to organize a solid power base of people across the US to enact this vision in solidarity with people around the world.
King spent his last year organizing poor people across races to stand against immortal spending priorities, even as he forcefully connected this work to resisting war. The Poor People’s Campaign is carrying on King’s legacy to this end, organizing in the near term to expand democracy with much stronger voting rights, and demanding a moral budget that fully addresses poverty, racism, militarism, and ecological devastation.
The richest and most powerful society in the world may be spiritually undead, according to King’s famous quote on military spending. But it’s never too late for a revolution of values.