As we observe the life and example of Martin Luther King, Jr., the question arises, “Which Dr. King will we honor?”
Will we yet again observe a polished, scaled-down, and non-threatening version of Martin Luther King, Jr. – the mere shadow of the man and his dream? At least we will recognize the leadership of the man who called for racial equality and urged us to be of service to our neighbors – as we should. We will even recognize that “we have come a long way” and “there is still further work to do” – as we should. Yet the further work to be done is invoked almost as an absolution, affirming our commitment to the dream, but without further specification and without discussing our troubling, ongoing racial inequalities.
Gone will be the King who called for an end to militarism and far-flung imperial wars, the King who said, “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. I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such,” and who called his government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
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The fact that our militarism has only grown significantly in the intervening decades makes it more comfortable to sweep these aspects of King’s message under the national rug. With Obama mobilizing more soldiers and military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan than Bush did, authorizing more drone attacks that have killed more innocent civilians than Bush did, expanding military bases in South America, and requesting and receiving the largest military budget ever in the history of not only this nation, but any nation in history, it is easier to simply close our collective lips about this King.
Gone also will be his call for radical, nonviolent dissent, his willingness to be jailed or beaten when necessary – when it came to challenging racial and economic injustice, but also when it came to challenging the militaristic agenda of our government and the enterprises that profited from it. Who today is urging Americans to “move beyond the prophesying of a smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent” like King did in the context of the Vietnam War? Those who do dissent stand closer to King’s legacy than those who purport to be his heirs merely by invoking his name or putting his image in their offices.
Gone also will be the King who criticized the evils of radical capitalism, materialism and the “glaring contrast of poverty and wealth” in this country – a gap that has only grown wider, with the wealth disparity greater now than in any year on record. (The wealthiest 10 percent control over 70 percent of the nation’s wealth, the top 1 percent control 38 percent, and the bottom 40 percent own less than 1 percent.) King dared to say, “Now, this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
Gone certainly will be the King who supported robust reparations. He said, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”
Finally, gone is the King the globalist, who believed that “our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation. This means we must develop a world perspective.”
Talking heads, politicians and educators will once again invoke King as a stalwart warrior against segregation and for equality, and children will learn about his valiant struggle for the civil rights of African-Americans. His “I Have a Dream” speech will be played, while most of his other speeches will be ignored. This year will hold special significance because this nation’s first African-American president has just finished his first year. Many have said that Obama is a fulfillment of King’s dream, because our president achieved something that would have been unthinkable 40 years ago and he did it based on the content of his character, not on the basis of his skin color.
While there is truth in that – in that it was unthinkable 40 years ago, or even four years ago – King would no doubt judge character much more broadly, and would examine the types of values being upheld and policies being pursued. While it is impossible to know how King would have approached the Obama phenomenon, he would have likely noted that what he achieved was in some measure due to his true allegiances. In other words, that notwithstanding Obama’s outstanding gifts, he is where he is in large part because he didn’t pose any threat to the structural status quo that King continually critiqued. Perhaps King would gaze at fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama’s policies and deduce a course of action that falls far short of his dream.
When was the last time we inquired into the full extent of the King’s full dream? Most Americans learn of the “I Have a Dream Speech” as a child, learn that we should all get along – then promptly forget the context of the speech. How many of us learn that the speech was originally part of the campaign called “March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs,” and that King called the large demonstration “a campaign for jobs and income because we felt that the economic question was the most crucial that black people, and poor people generally, were confronting.”
We don’t get an opportunity to forget King’s deeper dream, because we are never taught it. This is not unusual, as most radical democratic dreams and actors are erased from our nation’s official memory.
Perhaps this year as we witness ever more defense spending and military engagements and the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and even the middle class drops out, we will listen a little more closely to this giant of a man who still has much to teach us: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
I wonder, which Dr. King will we honor and learn from this year? Will it be the agreeable, safe King that calls for service and nominal equality – or will it be the radical, fierce King who calls for questioning the triple evils of capitalism, racism and militarism?
We hold up the former King as our favorite national, all-purpose icon who poets, preachers and politicians of all stripes can support from a safe distance; the latter King was shot down on that Memphis balcony. Could it be that we collectively pull the assassin’s trigger every time we honor the former over the latter?