MLK's radical vision got distorted: Here's his real legacy on militarism & inequality

Dr. King is remembered for a sanitized legacy. Here's what he really fought for -- and why it's so relevant today

Published January 19, 2015 3:59PM (EST)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leads a march of several thousands to the court house in Montgomery, Ala., March 17, 1965.        (AP)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leads a march of several thousands to the court house in Montgomery, Ala., March 17, 1965. (AP)

Today, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s federal holiday, many will write of Dr. King’s dream for equality for all people and his heroic leadership that inspired very real progressive change in our country’s laws and culture. Most will politely ignore the more radical currents of Dr. King’s vision, his activism for living wage jobs as a human right and an end to U.S. imperialism abroad, ideas that remain outside mainstream American thought to this day.

In the latter years of his life, Dr. King, already a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, frequently spoke publicly of the three evils holding back his society: racism, poverty and militarism. In one controversial speech,"Beyond Vietnam," delivered on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination and almost six years before U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam, Dr. King called his government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He argued national investment in the war had already doomed President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ to failure—a claim that the New York Times objected forcefully. In the address, Dr. King implored the necessity for the nation to undergo a “radical revolution of values,” explaining, “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.”

The speech prompted President Johnson to revoke Dr. King’s standing invitation to the White House. According to Tavis Smiley, it also earned Dr. King denunciations from 168 major newspapers the next day, including the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper. Dr. King continued in his final year, now an unpopular public figure, to support workers around the country—he was in Memphis, where he was assassinated, in support of striking public sanitation employees. He organized a Poor People's Campaign, often at odds with the Southern Christian Leadership Council that he helped to create, advocating for a Freedom Budget that sought to use the public treasury to extend genuine economic opportunity and material security to all Americans. After peaking at fourth on Gallup's 1964 list of Most Admired Men, Dr. King had disappeared from the list by 1967. He died with disapproval ratings similar to those enjoyed by George W. Bush upon his exit from office. Yet, in a Gallup poll conducted in 1999 to determine the most admired Americans of the 20th century, Dr. King is listed second. Unpopular in his time for challenging mainstream opinions of U.S. poverty and militarism, Dr. King is sanitized in our cultural memory, stripped of the radical roots of his values. He is now loved in death by the same economic-political establishment he opposed in life.

In an effort to focus attention in advance of MLK Day on the forgotten radical elements of Dr. King’s message, activists throughout the country disrupted business as usual this past Thursday, Jan. 15, Dr. King’s actual birthday. Operating largely under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement, the activists shared each other’s protest through hashtags like #ReclaimMLK and #MLKStrike. Demonstrations occurred across essentially all large U.S. cities, from teach-ins with University of Illinois faculty in Chicago to civil disobedience blocking streets in Baltimore and Boston. Additionally, the Fast Food Forward campaign, which is funded by the Service Employee’s International Union, commemorated Dr. King’s birthday by picketing with striking airport workers in Boston and Atlanta.

“Martin Luther King’s legacy has been watered down,” said Imani Henry, an organizer with New York’s People's Power Assembly, the group that planned the New York actions. “He was marching with workers when he was murdered in Memphis. He was anti-war.”

In contrast to the official appreciation of Dr. King that occurs every year on his national holiday, which tends to overlook Dr. King’s adversarial posture toward the status quo, the activists sought to emphasize protest as central to the change Dr. King was able to affect.

“What has happened with the national holiday, the official celebrations are inside events in churches and for politicians,” Henry said. “That is all fine and good, so long as it is with the understanding that we should also be in the streets—where he was. That’s the reclaiming of it. We come from being in the streets marching.”

In New York, protest spanned the city. Activists leafleted at Jamaica Center in Queens, descended on police precincts in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and staged subway sing-ins throughout Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. In Manhattan, where a couple of hundred protesters came and went throughout the day, they staged a die-in outside the Staten Island Ferry, marched around the Financial District, stopping to speak at City Hall and the African Burial Ground National Monument, and ended the day in picket lines at Grand Central Station. At one point, the group stopped outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center and chanted "Your Lives Matter" toward the building while inmates could be heard inside banging on the exterior windows.

Protesters in Manhattan carried a banner reading, "Black Lives Matter," while another stated, "In the Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jobs With Livable Wages, End Racist Police Terror." They sang the Peace Poet song, “I Can’t Breathe," a fixture in the ongoing street protests following the failure to indict the policemen who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner, and belted now familiar chants like, "No justice, no peace, no racist police," and “Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail, the whole damn system is guilty as hell."

Larry Holmes, an organizer with the New York People’s Power Assembly, addressed the crowd outside the African Burial Ground National Monument, emphasizing the police killings of black and brown youth are merely the most visible element of an American criminal justice system that imprisons more people per capita than any other country in the world and extends its reach to over 7 million people, a population that is disproportionately black and brown.

“For every one of them who have been murdered, there’s hundreds of thousands of us who have been stopped for nothing, harassed, humiliated, swept up in mass incarceration” Holmes said, as he vowed to never forget the history of slavery commemorated by the monument next to which they stood. “We not only want justice for those who have been cut down young in their life, we want an end to this police war against black and brown young people.”

Holmes, like many of the protesters, believes the NYPD "Broken Windows" policing strategy led directly to the deadly confrontation between the police and Eric Garner.

“We want an end to things like Broken Windows, which is the reason why Eric Garner was murdered,” he said.

Holmes expressed empathy for Mayor Bill De Blasio, who publicly criticized the People’s Power Assembly on Wednesday for using offensive language in protests, explaining Mayor de Blasio faces unwarranted criticism from groups like the Policemen’s Benevolent Association, which has suggested Mayor de Blasio’s tepid support of the protests somehow leaves him with blood on his hands for the murders of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

“The protest movement didn’t kill anybody,” Holmes said. “The protest movement is trying to save lives. We’re not for individual violence against cops. As a matter of fact, we’re not singling out any particular cop. What we’re against is the whole system, which is designed to point cops in the direction of over-policing, and basically putting down, young black and brown people.”

Holmes argued the police are put in a largely impossible situation by the systematic neglect of large portions of the population. In a climate of governmental social disinvestment, the police are the government’s answer for economically neglected communities.

“There are sections of the population that the powers that be no longer have any use for because there isn’t enough employment, and they don’t want to spend the money on services,” Holmes said. “Instead, they want to cut back on services, they want to close schools. This is like an excess population—and it’s growing. Instead of providing the social programs that people need, the NYPD becomes the government’s solution for the excess population. It deals with them by keeping them down and making sure these young people have records, which means they can’t get a job, and sometimes, by killing them.”

This bleak picture for Americans of the lowest socioeconomic classes, which disproportionately include racial minorities, represents the incomplete fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.

In "Beyond Vietnam," Dr. King noted the double impact of war on the poor: War spending is a budgeting priority in competition with social spending, and the American military disproportionately draws its fighting force from the poor. He concluded, “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.”

We continue to invest funds and energy today in a war on terror that has no end in sight. Our military budget is as large as those of the next eight countries combined, a number that accounts for more than 20 percent of the federal budget. The military receives over 50 percent of discretionary spending, accounting for $699 billion in 2011, while discretionary spending on health, transportation, income security, and education, training, employment, and social services reached only a combined $341 billion. Meanwhile, the military’s reliance on the poor has only increased since the end of the draft.

Dr. King also decried the coexistence of extreme wealth and poverty in American society.

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar,” he said. “It comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation.”

The current economic-political status quo produces perhaps more American beggars than at any time in our country’s history. The most recent analysis of U.S. wealth inequality finds the top 1 percent of U.S. wealth holders have 39.8 percent of the country’s individual wealth. The top 10 percent have 74.4 percent, which leaves 25.6 percent for the bottom 90 percent. The top .1 percent own 21.5 percent of the national wealth, while the top .01 percent—just over 31,000 people out of a national population of just over 316 million—own 11.1 percent. The U-6 unemployment rate remains over 11 percent, while one in three American children live in poverty. Ten million Americans have seen their homes foreclosed since the start of the 2008 recession. And the wealth gap between whites and other racial and ethnic groups rests near record levels.

Dr. King’s social critique did not shy away from identifying causes of the economic inequality that underscores racial and social inequality. He called out a military-corporate alliance, arguing, “This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary actions in Guatemala,” and in Indonesia, Cambodia, Venezuela and Peru throughout the 1960s. One day, Dr. King warned, “[We] will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no consideration for the social betterment of the countries and say this is not just.”

This investment model, one that demands the absence of any national capital restrictions, has since been solidified under neoliberal governance, which has been exported worldwide through U.S. financial power. It continues to move forward with three trade agreements under secret negotiation—the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the Trade in Services Agreement.

Yet Dr. King remained hopeful that America could lead the change from thing-oriented societies to person-oriented societies, from a social system that produces for profit rather than human need.

“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values,” Dr. King told his audience in Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. “There is nothing except the tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There’s nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.”

Though Dr. King’s dream remains largely unfulfilled, in his example of protest we find a proven model for change. Embracing the adversarial, more radical tenets of his beliefs can perhaps help us move that model forward in our time.

By Geoff Gilbert

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