A Martin Luther King Day Reflection on
American Dreams, Values, and Way of Life

By Seán Sheehan

Consumption · Quality of Life · Environment · Values

Column #14- January, 2004

This week we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. It's a week that would have seen the civil rights hero celebrate his 75th birthday. It's also one of the few holiday weekends that Madison Avenue has yet to brazenly co-opt. Now while I can't say I'd be too surprised to see an ad for a 'King Day Blowout sale: white Hummers, black Hummers, same low price,' I do find it appropriate that ad shills seem to be steering clear of one of the 20th century's great opponents of extreme materialism.

"Now hold on," you might be saying, "I thought Dr. King stood up to racial inequality and military aggression?" You'd be right, of course, but Dr. King actually spoke of three intertwined problems -- racism, militarism, and materialism -- that needed to be overcome if his beloved United States was to fulfill the promise of the American Dream.

The promise of the original American Dream was rooted in core American values such as freedom, security, justice, and opportunity. It held that everyone should have access to pursue a good life. Unfortunately, in the second half of the twentieth century these central values began to be corrupted and replaced by more materialistic priorities. Dr. King saw this corruption, recognized the disconnect between "enough for all" and "excess for some," and spoke out. In his 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech, King attested:

"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

This speech was not unique. Others referred to "the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism." Interestingly, he also sometimes spoke of "poverty, racism, and militarism" in the same way. King's interchangeable use of "materialism" and "poverty" is telling -- he clearly understood that we live in a world of finite natural resources and he obviously supported Gandhi's principle that there is "enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed." Were King alive to celebrate his 75th birthday, one can imagine that he might tout the findings of researchers at the University of British Columbia that we would need the resources of four additional planets for everyone on earth to live the lifestyle of the average North American.


King recognized that the increasingly materialistic version of the American Dream was growing incompatible with the original dream's core values. The conflict was particularly pronounced when citizens in developing countries aspired toward these American values only to have U.S. political and corporate leaders thwart their aspirations out of fear that it would raise the cost of cheap consumer imports. King saw this as a wholesale betrayal of the core values upon which our nation was founded.

He once lamented: "It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries."

Unfortunately, the change King observed in the 1960s has only become more entrenched in subsequent decades. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the first President Bush staunchly defended and defined America by its "more is better" obsession when he declared to the world: "The American way of life is not negotiable."


While he tackled issues of overwhelming proportion, Dr. King's legacy is all about empowerment. Much of his call to action simply involves reminding people how powerful we really are, both as citizens and as consumers. When overcoming racism, materialism, and militarism seems hopelessly idealistic, King reminds us that we are citizens of the United States, and that "America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values."

When Madison Avenue tells us we're too small to make a difference, King reminds us that individual Americans together, even financially poor black Americans, have a tremendous amount of consumer power. In his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, King calls, "[Let us] Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now, we are poor people, individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively, that means all of us together, collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine."

My organization, the Center for a New American Dream, firmly agrees with Dr. King's assessment that what we do matters. We work to pool citizen power through our Step by Step program and consumer power through our Conscious Consumer and Institutional Procurement programs. Together we push for products that have good value, are safe for the environment, and promote the well-being of the people at the other end of the production line.


It goes without saying that Dr. King's messages are entirely relevant four decades later. The good news is that many world leaders are seizing upon his teachings and working to make a difference. For example, President Lula of Brazil reiterated King's connections in a speech to the United Nations this past September, stating: "Peace, security, development, and social justice are indivisible."

Even the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, echoes an understanding of King when he states: "We have a situation where 20% of the world's population have 80% of the wealth, and the other 80% has just 20%. If that's a situation that leads to instability, then we are saying that that instability will convey itself through migration, through wars within countries and through crime and terrorism."

More and more leaders are recognizing the conflict between core values and a ‘more is better’ way of life and they’re asking which is more important, what really matters. As Wolfensohn’s quote demonstrates, some leaders are realizing that ‘more is better’ does not provide happiness or security, its not sustainable and, for most of the world, it will never be attainable. We need a new dream. We need a return to our core values.

Seán Sheehan is National Outreach Director for the Center for a New American Dream.
This article is distributed courtesy of the Center for a New American Dream.
For more information, click on www.newdream.org.

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Column #14- January 2004
AUTHOR: Sean Sheehan
TITLE: A Martin Luther King Day Reflection on American Dreams, Values, and Way of Life
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