Fifty years ago Sunday — Christmas Eve 1967 — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and told the congregation that in order to achieve peace on earth, “we must develop a world perspective,” a vision for the entire planet. “Yes,” he said, “as nations and individuals, we are interdepen- dent.”Then, with a sentence that could easily have been uttered by John Muir or Rachel Carson, Dr. King stated, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.”
Best remembered for his work and speeches on civil rights, Dr. King on that morning, in his last Christmas sermon before his assassination, anticipated much of the ecological consciousness and environmental concerns of the next 50 years, and the links between ecology and social justice that are vital to our pres- ent and future. Dr. King’s work to dismantle white supremacy and economic injustice was rooted in his prophetic Christianity, shaped by the black radical tradition, the Social Gospel and the black freedom struggle. Less known is his understanding of existence as unified and the voice he gave to a cosmology of connection.
In the last years of Dr. King’s life, his holistic vision led him to emphasize the connections between racism, militarism and economic injustice, and to see continuities across social movements. In a 1966 telegram to the labor leader Cesar Chavez, he wrote, “our separate struggles are really one.” Three weeks after his Christmas sermon, Dr. King visited the singer Joan Baez in jail, following her arrest after a sit-in at a draft induction center. Stopping to speak with Vietnam War protesters gathered outside, he told them, refer- ring to civil rights and antiwar activism, “I see these two struggles as one struggle.”
Dr. King was not, as some charged, calling for what he termed a “mechanical fusion” of the peace and civil rights movements. Still, he maintained, the issues were connected, telling his staff that racism, militarism and excessive materialism are “inseparable triplets.” In Dr. King’s mind, the civil rights move- ment was part of a broader “revolution of values” that was “forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws.” As he put it, what we need is nothing less than “a restructuring of the very architecture of American society.”
His Christmas Eve vision took things further, to encompass the intrinsic interconnectedness of existence itself. “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” he preached in his booming voice, “tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly” — “Yes, sir,” someone in the audience responded — “affects all indi- rectly. We are made to live together because of the interre- lated structure of reality.”
Dr. King had been thinking about the environment for
years before he addressed it in his sermon. Starting in the
1950s, Dr. King expressed concern for “the survival of the world,” and linked environmental and civil rights issues: “It is very nice to drink milk at an unsegregated lunch counter — but not when there’s strontium 90 in it.”
Exactly one year after his sermon, on Christmas Eve 1968, Col. Frank Borman and his crew were on their fourth orbit around the moon when he saw the earth swinging around the left side of the lunar horizon. “Oh, my God!” Colonel Borman exclaimed, “Look at that picture over there! Here’s the earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”
The photographs taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts were the first widely available photos of the planet, in its wholeness, taken by human hands. The radiant earth hovering over the cratered gray moon- scape — alive with clouds and oceans, illuminated against the black cosmos — became an instant icon, catalyzing a wave of planetary thinking and ecological awareness.
Dr. King did not live to see those photographs, but his vision presaged their message of interconnect- edness. Over two years before the first national Earth Day, before “ecology” and “the environment” became catchwords of the ’70s, before popular knowledge of “Gaia theory” and “systems thinking,” Dr. King was tying his vision of justice and peace to the interrelated structure of the universe.
Dr. King was tying his vision of justice and peace to the interrelated structure of the universe.
Fifty years later, so many of our challenges represent a failure to understand our interconnectedness. White supremacists and neo-Nazis, emboldened in these times, preach a timeworn hatred that corrodes community. Corporate capitalism, with its widening gulf between the ultrarich and the millions of people living in poverty, strains our social fabric while the worsening climate crisis provides unforgiving reminders of the earth’s delicate interrelatedness.
“This is our faith,” Dr. King told his church on that December morning. “As we continue to hope for peace on earth,” he went on, “let us know that in the process we have cosmic companion- ship.”
When Dr. King’s last book was published earlier that year, a reviewer wrote that “he has been outstripped by his times.” In the coming year, which marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, we will have an opportunity yet again to engage with the deeper dimensions of his thought.
We may come to see that Dr. King was, in fact, well ahead of his times. In important ways, he is still ahead of ours.
Drew Dellinger (@drewdellinger) is the author of “Love Letter to the Milky Way.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on December 23, 2017, on Page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Dr. King’s Interconnected World.
This January, like the one before and the one after, we will see a flurry of quotes and memes and videos that will largely constitute our celebration of Martin Luther King Day. But this particular January—perhaps more than ever—we need to move beyond that superficial encounter with King to a deeper engagement with his vision, and come face-to-face with the challenge to each of us, and the nation, that Martin Luther King represents. At a moment of peril for social justice, ecology, and democracy, we are called to rediscover the radical and ecological dimensions of King’s legacy.
This month we come to King Day on the heels of a presidential election defined by the most explicit racism, bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia ever seen in modern major-party politics. We come to King Day in the wake of the first presidential election since the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision, which gutted the Voting Rights Act—that touchstone of belated American democracy for which King and many others had risked, and some had given, their lives in Selma and throughout the South.
Fifty years ago, just days after King’s assassination, Harry Belafonte warned, “It would be tragic and perhaps fatal for our nation if we lose the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.” In 2017, with bigotry, racism, and fascism on the rise in Europe and the United States, we can ill-afford to lose track of one of history’s most compelling voices for racial justice, economic justice, freedom, compassion, nonviolence, interdependence, and direct action. As part of our movement-building work for justice and ecology, we are called to transcend the limited and limiting image of King our culture has presented, and encounter the Radical King and the Ecological King who—especially in times of ethical twilight—can serve as a beacon of energy, inspiration, and resistance.
The Superficial King
In popular culture and education, King has been more celebrated than understood. His most radical critiques have been obscured in the effort to present a crowd-pleasing, non-controversial MLK in classrooms and media. These “abridged editions” of his mission have succeeded in softening our memory of King’s prophetic fire, flattening his legacy into a cardboard cutout.
King’s colleague, Jesse Jackson, vividly captured our inadequate conception—what we could call “the Superficial King”—when he said, “we think of Dr. King like he was a big civil rights teddy bear, but this guy was radical.” Missing from our memory is the King who challenged white supremacy and colonialism, war and corporate power. Missing is his systemic analysis of institutionalized oppression, both racial and economic. As scholar Derrick P. Alridge demonstrates with his survey of textbooks, curricula, and teaching on King in high school classrooms, the history taught to our youth tends “to gloss over King’s critiques of American racism, poverty, and the war in Vietnam,” and presents “narrow, sanitized views.”
But it isn’t just high school students who have been kept from King’s real legacy. The radical side of King has been hidden from many of us, known mostly by King’s associates, MLK scholars and biographers, and those who read their works. In popular culture, education, and the media, King’s message has too often been softened, distorted, edited, or ignored.
However, that might be changing.
The Radical King
Despite our tenuous grasp on the fullness of King’s vision, in recent years we’ve seen more and more essays and videos highlighting King’s radicalness and the fact that his prophetic witness has been hidden, articles with titles such as, “The MLK You’ve Never Heard.” This is a welcome development. Demonstrators planning mass actions on King Day weekend, and others, have taken to Twitter, sharing King’s words with hashtags like #ReclaimMLK and #MLKAlsoSaid. This important and emerging appreciation for the true scope of King’s work is exemplified by the recent collection of his speeches and writings edited by Cornel West and aptly titled, The Radical King.
Ultimately the best solution for overcoming the Superficial King is activating the scholar in each of us and returning to the primary sources: King’s speeches, sermons, and writings. When we crack the books, King’s radical fire and sacred vision come flying off every page. When we take the time to listen to a full speech or sermon, the effect of his oratory is amplified, to put it mildly.
Even from his early days in the fifties, King advocated a fundamental transformation of society and economics, at one point declaring, “So, away with our class systems.” Throughout his twelve-year public career he challenged the global structures of capitalism, racism, and militarism. In his last months he gave his most searing indictments of racial oppression in the US, stating, “The thing wrong with America is white racism.” As King saw it, “the black revolution” was “forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws: racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism.”
This January, especially, we need the invigorating example of King’s message and life, his connection-making, his fearlessness and candor, his compassion and unbounded love. But beyond the growing recognition of the Radical King, there is another aspect of his thought that has, up until now, been largely absent, one that is vital as we work to link ecological and social justice movements, reverse the climate crisis, and fight for the future of the planet.
The Ecological King
For the last decade I’ve been presenting an idea, based on my research, that strikes many at first blush as odd: that Martin Luther King was, among other things, an ecological thinker. It took me by surprise at first, too, and developed gradually over many years, but ultimately became unavoidable as I read through his many references to interdependence and interconnectedness, his concern for “the survival of the world,” and his view of reality as a unified field: “Basically, we are one,” he said. “We are a chain. We are linked together, and I cannot be what I ought to unless you are what you ought to be.” The more I explored King’s words, the more it came into focus that interconnectedness is at the heart of his vision. King’s mission for peace, dignity, and justice was an implicit function of his worldview. “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality,” he said.
As part of the Ecological King, there is also an undiscovered Cosmological King, as evidenced by his frequent mentions of the stars and cosmos and invocations of the universe. From the beginning of his leadership King used language that was not only theological, but consistently cosmological. “We have the strange feeling down in Montgomery that in our struggle for justice we have cosmic companionship,” he stated in the summer of 1956. Three months later, addressing a mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, King reflected on the historic Bus Boycott: “These eleven months have not at all been easy…. Our feet have often been tired (Yes ) and our automobiles worn, but we have kept going with the faith that in our struggle we have cosmic companionship, and that, at bottom, the universe is on the side of justice.”
In addition, King often spoke reverently of the grandeur of the physical universe, “this huge pattern… this vast cosmic order.” In handwritten notes he celebrated “stars, planets, meteors, comets. All this galaxy of wonders.” When King spoke of the urgent need “to develop a world perspective,” he foreshadowed the iconic photographs of Earth from space that would emerge just after his death and usher in the age of ecological consciousness. His interrelated worldview subverted the disconnection of the modern world and anticipated transformational developments in ecology and systems thinking in the decades to follow.
King’s favorite TV program was Star Trek, and his serendipitous meeting with actress Nichelle Nichols (“Lt. Uhura”) caused her to stay on the show, after he impressed upon her the importance of her role, the power of television, the significance of science fiction and of her presence in the show’s portrayal of the twenty-third century.
King’s interest in the cosmos is a fascinating, if little known, aspect of his larger ecological view, which itself has been mostly overlooked. Surely there is meaning for us, whose survival depends on dramatic shifts toward ecology and justice, that one of recent history’s most celebrated social justice advocates was also an ecological thinker. Reclaiming King’s interconnected worldview can provide guidance as we move into the future.
This King Day, as we face the prospect of a chief advisor to the president who is a white supremacist, and the prospect of a Department of Justice headed by an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whose mentality remains on the wrong side of history, whose worldview has yet to cross that famous bridge from Selma to Montgomery, we need the Radical King who said, “We have got to go all out to deal with the question of segregation justice. We still have a long, long way to go.”
In these days of challenge to democracy, let us remember the Radical King who warned, “The day has passed for superficial patriotism.” Let us act with the commitment of the Radical King who said, “We cannot sit idly by and watch [the world] destroyed by a group of insecure and ambitious egotists who can’t see beyond their own designs for power.” And let us rediscover the Ecological King who reminded his listeners so often, “All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated.” As we rally to meet our political moment, we can take hope from the fact that the spirit of King’s vision is embodied in the vibrant resistance manifesting everywhere from Standing Rock, to the Movement for Black Lives, to the global campaign for climate justice. Honoring King’s commitment to justice means recognizing and supporting the women-led, Black-led, Indigenous-led, youth-led, queer-led movements of our time.
May we embrace the work to build a creative and compassionate future with the faith of Dr. King, who once told a rally of students in a packed gymnasium at Fisk University, “No lie can live forever. Let us not despair. The universe is with us.”
Drew Dellinger is an internationally known speaker, writer, poet, and teacher. He is author of Love Letter to the Milky Way, as well as an upcoming book on Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin 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.”