In hindsight it does not seem so unimaginable that a lonely young man in a jail cell could pen one of the most oft quoted phrases in modern history. But that was no ordinary man, and that was no ordinary time.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King Jr.
The phrase appeared in a letter written on 16 April 1963 whilst Dr.King was incarcerated in a Birmingham, Alabama jail – hardly the setting for such profound and poetic words, although frequent visitors at such establishments might argue otherwise.
The missive was so beautifully crafted and so compellingly argued that, were it not for Dr. King’s reputation as a writer and orator, it could easily have been mistaken as being the work of one of the most scholarly of individuals. Such writing is comparable to literature where the writer has all the resources at his behest, and definitely not from a setting where writing-paper would have been surprise paraphernalia.
After reading the letter his “Dear Fellow Clergymen” were certainly left in no doubt whatsoever as to the merits of campaigning “non-violently”. His words evinced the view held by the black disenfranchised that the “negotiation” option posited by the clergy was no longer favourable. Ecclesiastically, the ‘negro’ looked at Dr. King as their leader and saviour. Generally, he was looked upon as a man who could unite the US in a cloak of peace and unity.
Try as we might we would never be able to convince ourselves that the “injustice” and “justice” mentioned by Dr. King was a myopic reference to the discrimination against a single people – the “negro”. There is no doubt that his views were informed by personal strife, but they were also deeply rooted in Christian doctrine. And, therefore, an argument can be made that he embraced the sufferings of all men. This alignment of dogma and personality made him one of the most remarkable men in history. It is also why his words can find resonance in today’s social narrative. Fifty-five years after being written his words serve as a sombre reminder that the ideologies of martyrs are rarely achieved.
In the present day, and across every sea and on every land there is the suffering of all men like never before in history. Although history records successes and “progress” a careful reading will unearth the little anecdotes of the misery of the townsfolk. Perhaps Dr. King had read these little anecdotes and intended that his words be widely read by future generations, and not as he had barely read of past generations.
There are conflagrations daily, and violent protests and pitched battles waged primarily between state and populace. In an ironic situation the citizenry demand for only what they are owed and the state violently defends itself because it cannot pay its social debt. The levels of poverty, depression and frustration – mixed with a toxic amount of intolerance – have reached their peaks; and “the end is nigh” may longer be just a foreboding prophesy. Could all these occurrences be a result of the presence of “injustice” and the absence of “justice” that Dr. King wrote about? And what is the cause? Or, who is the cause? Although the presumption may be otherwise, it would not be difficult to establish cause or complicity. A class in “private eye 101” would provide a superlative understanding that there is basically a combination of three motives for murder: “revenge, sex, money”. Although devoid of any factual statistics here, “money” may just be the most common motive. Indeed, if war, terrorism and armed insurrections are to be included in the calculations then it certainly is. Ideology and politics may fog the real reason behind these occurrences, but when all else is stripped away the economic motive becomes as clear as freshly painted white lines on black tarmac.
Economics has been the differentiator between survival and demise since time immemorial. Being the conqueror and not the vanquished, rulers and not the slaves and the remembered and not the forgotten have all depended on the measure of commercial worth. Moreover, material wealth came to be regarded as a divine endowment. You had it because God willed it, and so how you spent it was also because God willed it. That this superficial viewpoint was, and is still, a total contradiction of the very divinity depended on so dearly by “the big spenders” mattered not. Remember: “God willed it”. It is this selfishness and fear of poverty that can turn even the most decent of men into kleptocrats.
Now what if we replaced the word “injustice” with extravagance, and “justice” with altruism? Might circumstances now be any different than they are? We have come to learn that the acquisition of wealth has become institutionalised, even encouraged through a false adaptation of religious doctrine. Through sleight of hand, and show of force, nation states have sustained the fallacy that they exist to provide for their people. We are awed by edifices that touch the sky, not for a moment pitying the souls who toiled and starved to their deaths building them. Would we be less “progressed” if we ignored all these vanity projects and fed all the starving, clothed all the nude, sheltered all the homeless and treated all the ill?
As attested to by historical records, and notated by Dr.King, “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily”. It is when they are asked to that the question of “injustice” or “justice” becomes relevant. Then these two words might as well be substituted by superiority/inferiority, royals/commoners, bankers/borrowers, believers/infidels, master/slave, and black/white.
Thus, today as well as in Dr. King’s day and in ancient days, your station in life is wholly dependent on fiscal accrual. A global economic imbalance has created an incongruous situation where those who need it can’t get it while those who get it don’t need it. Even scarier is that 1% of the world’s population own and control 90% of its wealth. Juxtapose that with $2 per day. That’s the United Nations benchmark at which poverty ceases to exist. What is that then: “justice” or “injustice”?
Perhaps the answer lies herein: let the hindsight of history and the perspective of the present help dispel the fear of the future.