The Forgotten, Radical Martin Luther King Jr.

Many of the politicians aligning themselves with King now would balk at his beliefs about American power.

Dr. Martin Luther King delivers a speech calling for an end to fighting in Vietnam in Chicago, Sept. 1, 1967. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Jan. 20, 2014, midnight

Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. was not just the safe-for-all-polit­ic­al-stripes civil-rights act­iv­ist he is of­ten por­trayed as today. He was nev­er just the “I Have a Dream” speech. He was an an­ti­war, anti-ma­ter­i­al­ist act­iv­ist whose views on Amer­ic­an power would shock many of the same politi­cians who now scramble to sing his praises.

King’s more rad­ic­al world­view came out clearly in a speech to an over­flow crowd of more than 3,000 people at River­side Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. “The re­cent state­ment of your ex­ec­ut­ive com­mit­tee are the sen­ti­ments of my own heart and I found my­self in full ac­cord when I read its open­ing lines: ‘A time comes when si­lence is be­tray­al,’ ” he began. It wasn’t about the civil-rights move­ment — not dir­ectly, at least. “That time has come for us in re­la­tion to Vi­et­nam.”

He con­tin­ued, in a speech called “Bey­ond Vi­et­nam“:

To­night, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF [Na­tion­al Lib­er­a­tion Front] but rather to my fel­low Amer­ic­ans, who, with me, bear the greatest re­spons­ib­il­ity in end­ing a con­flict that has ex­ac­ted a heavy price on both con­tin­ents…. There is at the out­set a very ob­vi­ous and al­most fa­cile con­nec­tion between the war in Vi­et­nam and the struggle I, and oth­ers, have been wa­ging in Amer­ica. A few years ago there was a shin­ing mo­ment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real prom­ise of hope for the poor—both black and white—through the poverty pro­gram. There were ex­per­i­ments, hopes, new be­gin­nings. Then came the buildup in Vi­et­nam, and I watched the pro­gram broken and evis­cer­ated as if it were some idle polit­ic­al plaything of a so­ci­ety gone mad on war, and I knew that Amer­ica would nev­er in­vest the ne­ces­sary funds or en­er­gies in re­hab­il­it­a­tion of its poor so long as ad­ven­tures like Vi­et­nam con­tin­ued to draw men and skills and money like some de­mon­ic de­struct­ive suc­tion tube. So I was in­creas­ingly com­pelled to see the war as an en­emy of the poor and to at­tack it as such.

Per­haps the more tra­gic re­cog­ni­tion of real­ity took place when it be­came clear to me that the war was do­ing far more than dev­ast­at­ing the hopes of the poor at home. It was send­ing their sons and their broth­ers and their hus­bands to fight and to die in ex­traordin­ar­ily high pro­por­tions re­l­at­ive to the rest of the pop­u­la­tion. We were tak­ing the black young men who had been crippled by our so­ci­ety and send­ing them 8,000 miles away to guar­an­tee liber­ties in South­east Asia which they had not found in south­w­est Geor­gia and East Har­lem. So we have been re­peatedly faced with the cruel irony of watch­ing Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die to­geth­er for a na­tion that has been un­able to seat them to­geth­er in the same schools. So we watch them in bru­tal solid­ar­ity burn­ing the huts of a poor vil­lage, but we real­ize that they would nev­er live on the same block in De­troit. I could not be si­lent in the face of such cruel ma­nip­u­la­tion of the poor.

King also ad­dressed the idea that his ad­vocacy of non­vi­ol­ence at home should ex­tend to the rest of the world:

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.

Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. is now hailed by politi­cians of all stripes, in­clud­ing a pres­id­ent who is now de­fend­ing a massive gov­ern­ment spy­ing pro­gram. In his speech an­noun­cing re­forms to the NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion of data, Obama ex­pli­citly cited MLK, and ac­know­ledged the his­tor­ic­al strain:

I have of­ten re­minded my­self I would not be where I am today were it not for the cour­age of dis­sid­ents like Dr. King, who were spied upon by their own gov­ern­ment. And as pres­id­ent, a pres­id­ent who looks at in­tel­li­gence every morn­ing, I also can’t help but be re­minded that Amer­ica must be vi­gil­ant in the face of threats.

It’s im­possible to ima­gine any politi­cian today cel­eb­rat­ing King’s full range of be­liefs, or us­ing a fully real­ized King as a way to pro­mote their own. Even the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton it­self was more rad­ic­al than it is of­ten re­membered as be­ing, hav­ing been largely de­signed by A. Philip Ran­dolph, a uni­on lead­er, and Ba­yard Rustin, a gay pa­ci­fist and World War II con­scien­tious ob­ject­or.

The man who said that his dream of equal­ity was “deeply rooted in the Amer­ic­an Dream” also be­lieved the Amer­ic­an gov­ern­ment, with what he saw as its weapons test­ing in Vi­et­nam, was on par with “the Ger­mans [who] tested out new medi­cine and new tor­tures in the con­cen­tra­tion camps of Europe.” In the same speech, King said that, if U.S. ac­tions were to con­tin­ue, “there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no hon­or­able in­ten­tions in Vi­et­nam.”

The rad­ic­al­ism of the 1967 speech didn’t just ex­tend to Vi­et­nam. King called for the U.S. to “un­der­go a rad­ic­al re­volu­tion of val­ues,” say­ing that “we must rap­idly be­gin the shift from a ‘thing-ori­ented’ so­ci­ety to a ‘per­son-ori­ented’ so­ci­ety.” He con­tin­ued:

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.

“A na­tion that con­tin­ues year after year to spend more money on mil­it­ary de­fense than on pro­grams of so­cial up­lift is ap­proach­ing spir­itu­al death,” he said.

The speech, and King’s stance on Vi­et­nam more gen­er­ally, were not par­tic­u­larly well re­ceived by ma­jor me­dia out­lets at the time. Time magazine called the speech “dem­agogic slander that soun­ded like a script for Ra­dio Hanoi.” The Wash­ing­ton Post wrote that King had “di­min­ished his use­ful­ness to his cause, his coun­try, his people.” An April 7, 1963, a New York Times ed­it­or­i­al titled “Dr. King’s Er­ror” took a wider view:

By draw­ing [Vi­et­nam and “Negro equal­ity”] to­geth­er, Dr. King has done a dis­ser­vice to both. The mor­al is­sues in Vi­et­nam are less clear-cut than he sug­gests; the polit­ic­al strategy of unit­ing the peace move­ment and the civil-rights move­ment could very well be dis­astrous for both causes.

Dr. King can only ant­ag­on­ize opin­ion in this coun­try in­stead of win­ning re­cruits to the peace move­ment by reck­lessly com­par­ing Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary meth­ods to those of the Nazis test­ing “new medi­cine and new tor­tures in the con­cen­tra­tion camps of Europe.” The facts are harsh, but they do not jus­ti­fy such slander.

….

As an in­di­vidu­al, Dr. King has the right and even the mor­al ob­lig­a­tion to ex­plore the eth­ic­al im­plic­a­tions of the war in Vi­et­nam, but as one of the most re­spec­ted lead­ers of the civil-rights move­ment he has an equally weighty ob­lig­a­tion to dir­ect that move­ment’s ef­forts in the most con­struct­ive and rel­ev­ant way.

Dr. King ex­pli­citly ad­dressed such ques­tions in his April speech:

Why are you speak­ing about war, Dr. King? Why are you join­ing the voices of dis­sent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurt­ing the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I of­ten un­der­stand the source of their con­cern, I am nev­er­the­less greatly saddened, for such ques­tions mean that the in­quirers have not really known me, my com­mit­ment, or my call­ing. In­deed, their ques­tions sug­gest that they do not know the world in which they live.

As he him­self said, King was al­ways more than “I Have a Dream.” His oth­er stances — from eco­nom­ic justice to Vi­et­nam — are just more con­tro­ver­sial. That doesn’t mean that they de­serve to be for­got­ten. The total spec­trum of his be­liefs may not be as easy as “let free­dom ring,” but the full MLK was much lar­ger than the safe-for-every­one ca­ri­ca­ture that is of­ten presen­ted today.

A ver­sion of this story was ori­gin­ally pub­lished on Na­tion­al Journ­al in Au­gust, 2013 for the 50 year an­niversary of the March on Wash­ing­ton.

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