Martin Luther King Jr - Ecological Thinker
"It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated." -Martin Luther King Jr.
artin Luther King Jr. is an omnipresent figure in global culture. Just recently, a team from MIT’s Media Lab placed Dr. King first on its list of “globally known people” born in the United States. But how much do we really know about the fullness of his vision? Despite the annual holiday in his honor, with its obligatory clips from the “I Have a Dream” speech, have we allowed our focus on the surface of King’s image to obscure the deeper dimensions of his thought?
In the final phase of his life, which I call his Mountaintop Period, King was connecting issues and linking movements: confronting poverty and entrenched racism in Chicago and Cleveland, speaking forcefully against US imperialism and the war in Vietnam, and organizing a Poor People's Campaign that would unite people across racial and ethnic lines to demand economic justice. These often-ignored radical aspects of King’s thought came through clearly as I began studying his speeches, sermons, and writings about 15 years ago. By immersing myself in King’s words, something else gradually revealed itself, something largely unnoticed even by King’s many scholars, biographers, and historians. Reading through his consistent references to the universe and the cosmos, to interrelatedness, interdependence, and connectedness, to mutuality and participation, an inescapable conclusion dawned on me: Martin Luther King was an ecological thinker.
He was also a cosmological thinker with a deep interest in the universe. As early as the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, King said, “The fact that this new age is emerging reveals something basic about the universe. It tells us something about the core and heartbeat of the cosmos.” As I studied King’s words, it also became clear that his vision was essentially one of connectedness. Along with his well-known worldview of prophetic Christianity, interconnection and interdependence were central to his thinking, and consistent themes in his rhetoric. King saw reality as an interlacing network of relationships, viewed the nations and peoples of the planet as one, and linked various social injustices, saying, “All of these problems are tied together.” “One cannot be concerned just with civil rights. It is very nice to drink milk at an unsegregated lunch counter—but not when there’s Strontium 90 in it.”
"We've played havoc with the destiny of the world," he said in his last months. "Somewhere we must make it clear that we are concerned about the survival of the world."
A few scholars have noted the ecological quality of King’s thought. In a 2006 speech, Larry Rasmussen, author of the recent book Earth-Honoring Faith, called King “one of the great ‘ecological’ thinkers of the 20th century,” while noting our failure to remember him as such. Other scholars such as Dianne Glave and Robert Bullard highlight King’s involvement with the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike as “inherently environmental” and a precursor of 21st century environmental justice activism. Apart from these brief mentions, the ecological nature of his thought has remained largely unexplored.
One of the best examples of King’s ecological view, and the links he draws between connectedness, justice, and nonviolence, is his “Christmas Eve Sermon on Peace,” delivered in the last months of his life from his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. “If we are to have peace on earth,” he told the congregation, “we must develop a world perspective. . . . Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent.” Then, with a sentence that could easily have been uttered by John Muir or Rachel Carson, King states, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.”
Continuing with lines also used in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” five years earlier, Kings says, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
King’s phrase, “network of mutuality,” is perhaps as good a definition of ecology as any offered by an ecologist. Is it possible that recovering the ecological and cosmological dimensions of King’s vision could help inspire our present work to link issues, connect ecology and social justice, and build a culture with a viable future?
King and the Cosmos
Throughout his life King was interested in the grandeur of the cosmos. For him, the universe was a source of awe and spirituality. His religious worldview embraced modern scientific cosmology, while rejecting what he saw as the soulless materialism of modernity. He appreciated the wonders of astronomy, but refuted the meaninglessness of the scientific worldview.
In the King Center’s online archives there are notecards, written in his hand, rhapsodizing about, “all this galaxy of wonders.” On another card, King writes of “stars that guide sailors in storms; stars that enrapture astrologers as they ponder the Zodiac; stars of the Milky Way; stars that thrill the hearts of poets.”
How did King relate his sense of the cosmos to the struggle against racism and the movement’s work for social justice? He created a cosmology of justice by joining the imperative for justice to the structure of the universe. In his vision, the civil rights movement always had a cosmological dimension. He often maintained that we have “cosmic companionship” in the struggle for justice and that “the universe is on the side of justice.” In King’s worldview, the calls for peace, for justice, and for compassionate action are woven into the fabric of the cosmos itself.
King’s overarching view of justice expressed itself on the social level as human solidarity, and for him, the new era taking shape through the civil rights movement provided confirmation of his cosmic view. Because white supremacy goes against our cosmological unity, King predicted the “inevitable decay of any system based on principles that are not in harmony with the moral laws of the universe.” He believed that “somehow the universe is on the side of all that’s moving toward justice and dignity and goodwill and respect.”
King and Ecology
King did not live to witness the groundswell of 20 million Americans participating in Earth Day 1970. He never saw the pictures of earth from space or heard Marvin Gaye and Joni Mitchell singing environmental anthems on mainstream radio. But despite the fact that he was killed before the popular emergence of environmental thought and perception, we can see in King’s work early indications of ecological consciousness and environmental concerns. “The cities are gasping in polluted air and enduring contaminated water,” King warned in 1967, in a statement that foreshadowed the environmental justice movement of the following decades.
King’s sacred view of nature, based in African American tradition, aligns with African and other indigenous traditions, mystical traditions, and much of the eco-spiritual thinking that would later develop. “Although God is beyond nature he is also immanent in it,” King wrote. “Probably many of us who have been so urbanized and modernized need at times to get back to the simple rural life and commune with nature... We fail to find God because we are too conditioned to seeing man-made skyscrapers, electric lights, aeroplanes, and subways.”
Along with protesting the alienation of the industrial world, King voiced opposition to the ecological threat posed by nuclear testing and the specter of nuclear war: “We’ve played havoc with the destiny of the world,” he said in his last months. “Somewhere we must make it clear that we are concerned about the survival of the world.”
In King’s view, the best hope for the future involved building mass, direct-action movements for justice. This would require connecting not only people, but issues and movements as well, expanding to encompass the planet itself. In a television interview from July 1967, King said, “It would be foolhardy for me to work for integrated schools or integrated lunch counters and not be concerned about the survival of the world in which to be integrated.”
King’s statements on ecology and the environment, made before the explosion of ecological thinking, are not a detailed program, but rather hints and glimpses—significant ones nonetheless. Although the ecological and cosmological themes in his work were never fully developed, King’s vision was ahead of its time in linking cosmology, social justice, and ecological consciousness.
The ecological and cosmological teachings of Dr. King have much to offer us as we work for positive transformation in our times. But honoring King’s cosmology of connection means not only recovering his ecological dimensions, but also engaging his critiques of militarism, poverty, and structural racism. As King told us, “justice is indivisible,” because ultimately, “we are tied together.”