Why Wasn't MLK A Vegetarian?
Humanism vs. the humane treatment of animals
Was Martin Luther King a vegetarian?
Hell, no. But Gandhi sure was. And guess who else? King’s second son, Dexter Scott King, is. Not just that, he’s a vegan. And so was Coretta Scott King, for the last ten years of her life.
Today, we celebrate Martin Luther King Day with a well-earned measure of pride. Our country has made remarkable strides forward in achieving what seems such a no-brainer now: equality among the races, and the mainstream acceptance of differences. After all, we've got a guy named Barack Obama in the White House. Few of us imagined that that could have happened, as it has.
Sure, there's plenty of work to be done: just because there’s equality on the law books, doesn’t mean that everyone has equal access to resources or opportunity. But that’s another discussion. This one is about how relevant vegetarianism is when we think about the legacy of Dr. King.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That’s what he once said. King worked tirelessly to change people’s minds about how they saw race. And as his struggle was making headway, he followed the logic of what he was preaching—non-violence, and equality for the dispossessed—and so he turned his attention to the Vietnam War. He was killed as that fight was taking shape.
If he had been allowed to live his natural life, would he have extended his beliefs to non-human animals? We can’t say. But, interestingly, his son Dexter sure did; with that in mind, he became an animal rights activist.
I hear some of you snickering. Others are rolling their eyes. I’ve heard it all.
“But what about broccoli? Broccoli has feelings to.”
No, plants don’t have nervous systems that allow them to feel pain as sentient beings do.
“But we’ve always eaten meat. It’s natural.”
This is not necessarily true. If you go way, way back, the argument can be made that we were like primates who are primarily vegetarians. The “natural” point also doesn’t really hold water because the same argument can be made that we shouldn’t sit in chairs or wear clothes or footwear. We’re way divorced from our natural selves as it is.
“It’s not good for you. I need my protein.”
You can get plenty of protein on a vegetarian diet; and all of the health benefits have been well documented.
But enough of that. If you want to argue against vegetarianism, please do so in the comments section. I'll answer you there.
I think it really comes down to taste and convenience. Non-vegetarians like to eat meat. I get that. I appreciate that. I’m not the hardcore vegan I once was: I even dabble in eating a piece of bacon once in a while myself. (Again, if you want to debate how I can write this piece, then I’ll meet you in the comments section.) But let’s all fess up to the hypocrisy of believing in equality and nonviolence, while being willing to cause non-human animals to suffer for our yummy breakfasts. As philosopher Peter Singer said, “we violate the rights of animals when we kill them for our food, or on the more utilitarian grounds that, in raising them for our food, we cause them more suffering than we gain by eating their flesh.”
The logical extension of King's vision has appropriately gone beyond race to gender, class, sexual orientation, age, and physical ability. Should it be extended to animals? "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated," said Gandhi, so he sure thought so.
Yes, vegetarianism is far more accepted as a mainstream norm than it was in King’s day. But will future generations look back at our age and believe that we were being so backwards in not recognizing the injustice we live with?
I doubt it. But we can take more steps to creating a more compassionate society. For instance, I've got a proposition for you: In honor of King’s beliefs, how about making today a meat-free day?