Today there are two roads we can take as we recognize, by mandate of the federal government, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But we should really ask ourselves: what was his Dream, and how do his words address today’s world?
In many places today, we have listened to the carefully scripted platitudes, all about being nice to each other, as we might have anticipated from our politicians eager to take the side of history. To be sure, it is extraordinarily significant that we have an African-American as our president, and truly a mark of progress in improving the inequalities that still glare unbearably, but were so much worse just a few generations ago. We should not underestimate the importance of our president’s skin color.
On the other hand, the administration would like nothing more than water down everything King preached about into a benign “Dream” that has been mostly realized in their eyes. Yes, our kids can play together, or some of them can anyway. All better?
Political leaders, news pundits, and public commemorations ask that we pay tribute to the feel-good themes of King’s vision. We can pat ourselve’s on the back for having attained a bit of the paradise he spoke of; we can hold him up as our hero of platitudes, full of dreams and communities “coming together” and everybody doing all sorts of good things. Obama suggests that we do a good deed today, some act of community service. Because, I suppose, that’s all that’s left of the worn-out Martin Luther King Jr. we’ve been rehearsing for nearly three decades now.
The problem is, all this has little to do with the sort of things King actually said.
To listen to King is to hear something biting and cutting leap right out of the archives and into our politics today. Hearing King’s speeches today is to listen to a astonishingly radical moral vision that retains its sharp edge. For example, one of the hardest hitting points of his later speeches was about the injustice of foreign wars: If we can find the billions of dollars for these wars, if we can spend a million dollars a day on them, how can we find so little, only a few thousand a day, to spend on addressing our own poverty and inequality at home? (paraphrase)
While King was revered by some for giving nice speeches about all the kids of many colors playing together, he was universally condemned in the media and by the politicians when his vision drifted into the real world of shameful inequalities and unjust wars, which he suggested were killing innocent poor people abroad people and using the American poor as cannon fodder for the whims of self-interested politicians. He began expanding his moral critiques from”let’s let our kids play together” to “all you black folk in Memphis ought to pull a general strike until they give you half-way decent working conditions.” At this point, King is way beyond the prescripted role he had been allotted to play. He’s stopped reading his lines. He must be stopped. The president approves the FBI’s racist director (Hoover) to spy on King, whom Hoover suspected of being a commie. This turned out to be mere speculation and fantasy on Hoover’s part, but that didn’t prevent him from operating a full spy operation on King. In fact, they were aware, before the assassination, of a possible hit out on King, yet did nothing to beef up his security or warn him of the danger. The mainstream press was no less hypocritical. Time magazine and the NYTimes practically told him to shut his trap when had things to say other than how black kids should play with white kids someday. They lambasted him for getting “out of his field.” How dare he talk about things like war and inequality. He’s supposed to make us feel good for admitting black people are fully human too. For them, King was a pawn for moral self-congratulation.
But in his actual speeches, besides that famous Dream speech, we see another King, one much more relevant to our world today.
We see his scathing critique of war:
Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the North. He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than 8,000 miles away from its shores.
It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism,” unquote.
We find in King man ready to act, to protest government injustice as a way of life. It was not only civil rights issues like segregation that he protested. He spoke out against labor issues, and the government spending infinitely more on its wars abroad than on its own poor back home, an issue which speaks loudly to our situation today.
These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
We hear a scathing critique of American Empire:
In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years, we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression, which has now has justified the presence of US military “advisers” in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago, he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
And King offers an incredible recipe for shifting our vision of the world, from selfish and rapacious conquerors to a people of compassion:
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, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Finally, in prophetic and powerful words,King called for an end to the kind of killing of innocents we’ve been practicing in Iraq and Afghanistan (and recently, Yemen and Pakistan via drone attacks) for nearly a decade now:
A true revolution of values will lay a hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.
The establishment held King up as an icon of peaceful requests and nonviolent examples of a good Negro asking for things that, after all, white folks ought to grant black folks. Essentially, King’s requests for equality were already destined for success. It wasn’t just a man demanding these things, it was a movement of millions of people. He didn’t create the movement, he just found himself leading it. And among the leaders, if you are a President Johnson, King is far more preferable, far less threatening, than someone like Malcolm X. At Malcolm X’s funeral, one orator would declare the virile, threatening, aggressive form of resistance Malcolm incarnated. “Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood!” For Malcolm X, King’s rhetoric of nonviolence and vision of equality did little to absolve the great historical injustices embedded in black Americans’ bodies. For him, it was not enough to finally gain entry to the status of full human being. For him, this was not something to politely request, and forgiveness was not a useful tool. Militant, organized, even armed resistance was the proper response to the organized violence of a racist American state, where he saw the police as the modern legal version of the Klu Klux Klan, violently enforcing racist policies.
Malcolm X would often declare in speeches that white folk were happy to see King marching, because he posed little threat compared to the rage and resentment of a people too long oppressed, a people fed up and ready to react violently against their oppressors. Malcolm suggested that white folk would sigh in relief when they see King coming down the street, because then they knew they were safe: King preaches non-violence, he tells the crowd not to smash any windows but to lie down before the dogs and the fire-hoses.
So we can see why don’t celebrate Malcolm X day, at least not by mandate of the federal government.
On the other hand, after listening again to some of Malcolm’s and to King’s speeches, it is clear that King was a visionary at a level Malcolm was not. King’s vision of a moral response to injustices was principled, politically strategic, and efficacious, although that response stopped well-before it reached its goal of real social equality between the races in America.
King had an inspired moral vision that allowed him to cut through ideological distortion and make crystal-clear pronouncements about the state of affairs, whether local or global:
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. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated.
And finally, with Martin Luther King Jr., we have a vision of love that shaped his vision of justice and the forms of resistance it was possible to take in fighting for it:
When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response, I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I’m speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”r