The Second Assassination of Martin Luther King: Whitewashing a Legacy of Dissent
Today is January 20th, this year it is set aside to honor the memory of the great Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to celebrate this unforgettable man and his legacy…but which legacy? Are we to celebrate the image of a loved-by-all preacher whose struggle for human dignity was limited to one year of his life—1963—when he gave his I Have A Dream speech, penned Letter from Birmingham Jail, and showed his dedication to nonviolence through protests and boycotts throughout the South? Are we to celebrate the real Martin Luther King Jr.: an anti-war, anti-capitalist activist who called for direct action as much as nonviolence, democratic socialism as much as equality, and black identity as much as integration?
The first Martin Luther King is quite simply a fairy tale, a convenient story which avoids the hard truth of Martin’s frequent harsh but lucid critiques of American society. The second MLK is too easily forgotten, as is the case with all true visionaries, and to ignore his analysis is to deny Martin Luther King himself a voice and place a shoddy mannequin in his stead. We cannot tell ourselves this day is set aside for King when there is a systematic refusal to acknowledge his core beliefs; there is scant mention of his frequent critiques of American imperialism in Vietnam, of his take on institutional racism against the black man at home, of his decrying of a fundamental disconnect between reality and rhetoric—between America’s socio-economic order and promises of equality. If we take the time to look at the real King, we will find an even more powerful message than what is distilled today, one that is even more relevant to us in these pressing times.
One of King’s lesser known (and greatest) speeches best serves to encapsulate his perspective, given on April 4th 1967—exactly one year before his death—before 3,000 people at Riverside Church, New York City. King delivered his seminal speech “Beyond Vietnam,” a comprehensive statement that made it painfully clear he was against the Vietnam War. In it, he goes over some of the reasons he is against the Vietnam War and explains that one is:
my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
What words would King hold for us in the midst of President Obama’s demonstrably ineffective drone assassination campaign—one that indiscriminately kills poor civilians and terrorists alike, that is illegal under international law and bears direct human costs on these populations which are not even examined, let alone seriously discussed? What would he say to the President handing Wall Street $500 billion for bringing down the economy while ignoring the “sinking African American electorate still in deep depression”? What would King say to the Obama’s defense of US foreign policy in his 2009 Nobel speech with “just war theory”, while expanding Bush’s “pre-emptive war” policy (also called the “Obama Doctrine”) in the Middle East? These three examples transgress the very crux of King’s platform: human equality, social justice, and peace. It would be safe to say he would start off as he did at Riverside Church almost 50 years ago:
‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ And that time has come for us…The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
But to properly appreciate King’s legacy, we must move on as well and examine even more of King’s critiques which bear relevance to our situation today where we are mired in an unprecedented economic rift and the sputtering of the imperial machine due to recent adventures (much like the situation during the United States' invasion of Vietnam and Indochina). We turn to another address that King gave, titled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians", from the perspective of the early Christian Apostle Paul if he had happened across America. A lifelong socialist, King saw poverty and racism intrinsically linked and as thus, gave a convincing argument for democratic socialism being the only hope for the destruction of poverty and racism in America, stating:
I understand that you have an economic system in America known as Capitalism. Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous, but Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism. I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity.
The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem. You cannot solve the problem by turning to communism, for communism is based on an ethical relativism and a metaphysical materialism that no Christian can accept. You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in this universe “enough and to spare” for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.
Again, what would King say in the face of an economic disparity he could not have dreamed of—one last seen during the odious Roaring Twenties where “economic conditions…take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave men by the thousands and the millions smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society”? What would King say of our efforts or promises to substantially reduce poverty globally meanwhile substantially increasing the priority of profits over people, meanwhile substantially increasing global military budgets during peacetime, meanwhile turning a blind eye to the birth of a monstrous institutionally race-minded prison-industrial complex? Again, contemporary issues find expression in King’s passionate “Beyond Vietnam” speech, arguing:
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.
King’s core ideology, his true message of peace and equality and freedom cannot be taken in isolation from his critiques of American society and calls for reformulations of the social order. In fact, without this context his message is barely recognizable and does him a disservice. These views are conveniently whitewashed, understandably so, as they challenge power and it would do power no good to recognize them. But we must recognize that his message bears an almost prophetic relevance to our struggle, some 44 years after his Riverside Church speech, and until we accept King for the man he truly was and not the man we want him to be, we will never learn anything from his struggles. Instead we learn within a framework that already does not value his blood, sweat, and tears, and furthermore, one that will not value ours.
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