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Monday, January 19, 2004

I received an e-mail with the following three articles about Dr. Martin Luther King:

Martin Luther King's Radical Legacy
By John C. McMillian, In These Times
10 February 1999
Ernest Hemingway once wrote that "the dignity ... of an iceberg is due to only one eighth of it being above water," while the rest remains submerged, unavailable to the naked eye. Something of the same might be said for Martin Luther King Jr. Though there are a number of reasons why we should all be grateful for the federal holiday each January honoring the birth of King, we should also recognize that this event helps to promote a shallow understanding of his true intellectual legacy, leading to a misconstrued image of King that he scarcely could have endorsed himself.

The scores of politicians who spoke on Jan. 18 about the pressing need to fulfill King's "Dream," for example, were generally
endorsing a simplified, static portrait of King. Meanwhile, we have been bombarded with a steady stream of television commercials, advertisements and newspaper articles that imply King was merely a liberal reformer, whose sole preoccupation was civil rights. Where was the discussion of King's plans to transform the structures of power and privilege in society? Who remembered King's call for a "radical revolution" of American values? As historian Vincent Harding has remarked, "It appears as if the price for the first national holiday honoring a black man is the development of a massive case of national amnesia."

Even before the advent of his public career, King pondered fundamental economic changes in American society. "I imagine you
already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic," a 23-year-old King wrote in a 1952 letter to Coretta Scott. If most Americans don't know this, the federal govemment certainly did. Because of his alleged ties to Communism, the FBI launched an extended campaign to smear King, tapping his phones, sending him threatening mail and trying to discredit him among journalists and potential donors and supporters. Following King's famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington, FBI Assistant Director Louis Sullivan charged that King had become (in a curious pair of adjectives), "The most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country."

We further need to be reminded that King demanded a total restructuring of our foreign policies, and-unlike Jesse Jackson and
many other "leftists" of our era-he would have had nothing but scorn for President Clinton's criminal bombings of Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, King began speaking out against U.S. militarism as early as 1965. Most symptomatic of this, of course, was the "nightmarish conflict" in Vietnam, which he said was "one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world."

In the last years of his life, King also began to focus greater attention on entrenched patterns of exploitation. In these terms,
integration did not simply mean mixed lunch counters or diverse neighborhoods, but rather a meaningful sharing of power and
responsibility in all aspects of society. Though it is true that King pined for a nation where people would be judged "not by the
color of their skin, but by the content of their character," few things are more deliberately cynical than the conjecture of
conservatives- from Ward Connerly to David Horowitz-who claim that King would have opposed present-day affirmative action programs. In fact, the opposite is true. In his 1964 book, Why We Can't Wait, King argued that "among the vital jobs to be done, the nation ... must incorporate into its planning some compensatory consideration for the handicaps [the Negro] has inherited from the past."

Elsewhere, he cited both the federal Gl Bill and India's program of "preferences" for the "untouchables" as worthy efforts to make up for disadvantages that certain groups had faced. King also spoke publicly against "systemic rather than superficial
flaws" in our economic system, questioning the basic tenets of capitalism and calling for full employment, national health care and a guaranteed annual wage. As a means to these ends, he envisioned a massive escalation of nonviolent civil disobedience. Whereas much of his early work in the South simply sought a recognition of general principles mirrored in the Constitution, King planned for subsequent campaigns to be waged in confrontation with the federal government.

Nonviolence, he argued, "must be adapted to urban conditions and urban moods.... There must be more than a statement to the larger society, a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point." But above all, King called for a revolutionary re-examination of America's character: a point that was lost on virtually all of the joumalists and politicians who commemorated King this year.

Obviously, we should continue to honor King's greatness on the third Monday of each January. But in the future, we need to demand that these celebrations look beyond the popular, sanitized images of King that are spooned out to us annually. As Stanford historian Clayborne Carson has pointed out, "The historical King was far too interesting to be encased in simple, didactic legends designed to offend no one."

Remaking King
By Mumia Abu-Jamal
8 February 2000
On the day I received the kind invitation from SCLC Board/King Planning Committee Member, Maureen Flynn-Hart, the news media announced that the Catholic church hierarchy was considering naming the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist, Protestant minister, as a Christian Martyr; an extraordinary honor to a non-Catholic. As I thought of this honor, I was also reminded of how political conservatives have appropriated the name, image, and selected texts of the late Dr. King to further their right-wing, white supremacist agenda. A prime example, of course, is the anti-affirmative-action initiatives that have been placed on the ballot in California and other places, actions that would've sickened the heart of King if he was among the living.

It is the nature of the state to co-opt movements to further their own interests. That's the nature of capitalism, isn't it? A deep reading of King, however, shows, not so much Christian Martyr as Social Reformer - someone deeply concerned about economic and social justice, as well as American militarism. Consider this: When Dr. King was cruelly martyred, was he assassinated while working for the church, or while working for a decent wage and dignity for striking garbage workers in Memphis?

It's easy for us, the living, to forge Dr. King into an icon; it's safe. It's much harder to do the work that Dr. King would be doing
today. How would he look at a president like Clinton's dark, pragmatic embrace of the death penalty? What would he say about two million people in prison? How would he address homelessness in the richest nation on earth? What would be his response to injustice in the so-called halls of justice? I hazard a prediction that, health permitting, the good Rev. Dr.
would be passionately protesting these, and other, injustices -- just as we should do!

Dr. King Was Not a "Dreamer"
By Paul Rockwell, In Motion Magazine
10 May 1999
Every year, millions of Americans pay tribute to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. We often forget, however, that King was the object of derision when he was alive. At key moments in his quest for civil rights and world peace, the corporate media treated King with hostility. Dr. King's march for open housing in Chicago, when the civil rights movement entered the North, caused a negative, you've-gone-too-far reaction in the Northern press. And Dr. King's stand on peace and international law, especially his support for the self-determination of third world peoples, caused an outcry and backlash in the predominantly white press.

In his prophetic anti-war speech at Riverside Church in 1967 (recorded and filmed for posterity but rarely quoted in today's
press, King emphasized four points: 1) that American militarism would destroy the war on poverty, 2) that American jingoism breeds violence, despair, and contempt for law within the United States, 3) the use of people of color to fight against people of color abroad is a "cruel manipulation of the poor," 4) human rights should be measured by one yardstick everywhere. The Washington Post denounced King's anti-war position, and said King was "irresponsible." In an editorial entitled "Dr. King's
error," The New York Times chastised King for going beyond the allotted domain of black leaders -- civil rights. TIME called King's anti-war stand "demogogic slander...a script for Radio Hanoi." The media responses to Dr. King's calls for peace were so venomous that King's two recent biographers - Stephen Oates and David Garrow - devoted whole chapters to the media blitz against King's internationalism.

Dr. King may be an icon within the media today, but there is still something upsetting about the way his birthday is observed. Four words - "I have a dream" - are often parrotted out of context every January 15th. King, however, was not a dreamer - at least not the teary-eyed, mystic projected in the media. True, he was a visionary, but he specialized in applied ethics. He even called himself "a drum major for justice," and his mission, as he described it, was, "to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed." In fact, the oft-quoted "I have a dream" speech was not about far-off visions. In his speech in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963, Dr. King confronted the poverty, injustice, and "nightmare conditions" of American cities. In its totality, the "I have a dream" speech was about the right of oppressed and poor Americans to cash their promissary note in our time. It was a call to action.

In 1986, Jesse Jackson wrote an essay on how Americans can protect the legacy of Dr. King. Jackson's essay on the trivialization, distortion, the emasculation of King's memory, is one of the clearest, most relevant appreciations in print of Dr. King's work. Jackson wrote: "We must resist this the media's weak and anemic memory of a great man. To think of Dr. King only as a dreamer is to do injustice to his memory and to the dream itself. Why is it that so many politicians today want to emphasize that King was a dreamer? Is it because they want us to believe that his dreams have become reality, and that therefore, we should celebrate rather than continue to fight? There is a struggle today to preserve the substance and the integrity of Dr. King's legacy."

Today, the media often ignores the range and breadth of King's teachings. His speeches -- on economic justice, on our potential to end poverty, on the power of organized mass action, his criticism of the hostile media, his opposition to U.S. imperialism (a word he dared to use) - are rarely quoted, much less discussed with understanding. In fact, successors to Dr. King who raise the same concerns today are again treated with sneers, and their "ulterior motives" are questioned. A genuine appreciation of Dr. King requires respect for the totality of his work and an ongoing commitment to struggle for peace and justice today.