Dr. King’s Interconnected World

December 22, 2017
By Drew Dellinger
New York Times

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 interdependent.” 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 present 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, referring 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 movement 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 indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated 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 moonscape — 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 interconnectedness. 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.

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 companionship.”

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.