Remembering a Radical

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

Many commemorate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without paying much tribute at all to the intellect and ideas of the man. We settle for a whitewashed history that erases much of the man himself and his radical, even revolutionary, views. This fallacy is then dishonestly attributed to groups fighting for freedom in the United States today. Many of those who trumpet his example to excoriate civil unrest in places like Ferguson and Baltimore blow hot air into a safe-for-all narrative of King that is edited to serve their point. However, these same individuals would have considered King to be just as dangerous as the establishment did at the time.

King would also allege that he was far more than ‘I Have a Dream’; an important speech nonetheless, but his views on capitalism as an enabler of racism, militarism and exploitation have proven far less noteworthy for the agendas of revisionists. This has been used to create model of “good” black behavior, is held as a misleading and false bar for “acceptable” blackness.

Below are some of the most radical quotes attributed to the man whose dream was deeper than you might have known.

“I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. … Today capitalism has outlived its usefulness.” (A letter to Corretta Scott, 1952)

“We must admit that [communism] arose as a protest against the hardships of the underprivileged. … Communism seeks to transcend the superficialities of race and color, and you are able to join the Communist party whatever the color of your skin or the quality of the blood in your veins. With this passionate concern for social justice Christians are bound to be in accord.” (1962)

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” (1967)

“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.” (1967)

“[W]e are saying that something is wrong … with capitalism…. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” (1966)

“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ … When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.” (1967)

“Marx reveals the danger of the profit motive as the sole basis for an economic system. We must heed this challenge. I’m afraid that there are too many people in America concerned about making a living rather than making a life.” (1962)

Again, when King’s example is brought up today to demean the work of activists and the cause of social justice, we would do well to remember that he was not revered in his lifetime by those occupying largely the same roles, advocating the same values as those peddling their safe versions of King today.

In his ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech, Dr. King went after the role of capitalism in war, the role of war in social control, and, as many did not see the connection between civil rights and protest against the war, the importance of seeing civil rights as a cause that goes beyond a single group or nation.

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.

For those who did not grasp Dr. King’s reasons for tying together the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement in the US, he really could not have been clearer. And the speech, exalted and covered extensively by the left, encouraged much greater action to be taken against government policy:

If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war and set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.

Of course, you don’t get very far with the media of the day when you’re considered a dangerous and subversive element to the status quo. The response to Beyond Vietnam was sharp, critical and evident even then of the indignation taken to King breaking beyond boundaries people thought he should abide by. The boundaries employed to contain his message.

“[D]emagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” – Time Magazine

“[King] diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.” – The Washington Post

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. – The New York Times

It’s interesting to see that the King of the civil rights era was treated much the same as those today marching with banners which read Black Lives Matter. Social activists are routinely scolded by authority that refuses to recognize its illegitimacy. They are reminded today, as they were then, that there’s a “right” way to dissent — the way that settles for contentedness and collusion with prevailing institutional forces. They are reminded precisely because such neutral strategies do not lead to any radical shifts in society.

Dr. King sought after those radical shifts. When we remove ourselves from today’s tailored image of him, which robs the exploited and underserved of a foundation to their dissent and serves the interests of those still making the same costly decisions, we see that the man’s example still exists today. Treated much the same as it was then.

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