These days, everybody wants a piece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Last year, Glen Beck invoked King's legacy to promote his own rally, claiming the tea party was fighting the same fight as King. And last week, the general counsel of the Department of Defense (as it's euphemistically called), claimed that despite King's opposition to the war in Vietnam, he would support America's military actions today. As the editors at Common Dreams point out, this suggests the DoD is operating in some alternate reality.
So maybe it's better to say, then, that everyone wants a piece of the luster attached to King's legacy, since the mainstream and right-wing pundits prefer their heroes dead, the better to bowlderize their words and twist their messages.
In his last years, King opposed not only the Vietnam war, but American imperialism more broadly; he called for labor rights; he called for economic justice and a poor people's movement. King's economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America's cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its "hostility to the poor"--appropriating "military funds with alacrity and generosity," but providing "poverty funds with miserliness." He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for "radical changes in the structure of our society" to redistribute wealth and power. "True compassion," King declared, "is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
As Alan Singer observed a couple of years ago, "If Dr King had not been assassinated, but had lived to become an old radical activist constantly questioning American policy, I suspect he would never have become so venerated. It is better for a country to have heroes who are dead, because they cannot make embarrassing statements opposing continuing injustice and unnecessary wars."
Michelle Chen in Colorlines points out that
When King told his audience, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home,” he inverted the prevailing notion that the price of national security would be borne solely by the country we designated as the enemy. He was advancing a globalization of the civil rights movement that was already underway. As historian Mary Dudziak has pointed out, “Third World” activists, embroiled in their own post-war, anti-colonial liberation movements, had watched the protests in Birmingham closely, seeking inspiration and a platform to challenge Washington’s hypocrisy.
The radical King, Chen points out, has
galvanized generations of resistance movements from the Horn of Africa to death row. … That’s why some Pan-Africanist commentary on southern Sudan’s independence referendum this month invoked the preacher’s words. And Hugo Chavez, proud foe of American hegemony, recently hailed King as a martyr.
Closer to home, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Code Pink, Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the American Friends Service Committtee have invoked the radical tradition of King.
But historian Barbara Ransby, also in Colorlines , reminds us that
King was not a king. He was not a superhero who rushed in to singularly rescue black people from the evils of American racism. He acted in concert with others, many others, some of them with longer careers in social justice struggles than himself... We cannot build a movement for social justice by hanging our hopes on a single charismatic leader, no matter how articulate, committed, and brilliant he or she may be . . . . Individuals . . . are only as strong as the collectives and communities that surround them . . . . So, celebrations of King have to go hand in hand with celebrations of the maids and porters students and teachers who struggle[d] tirelessly in what we now term the civil rights movement. We have to also remember the folks like Ella Baker, who was an activist and strategist for over 50 years in groups fighting racism, poverty, and repression. And Fannie Lou Hamer, who had no formal education and lacked the credentials that King enjoyed, but who was one of the most courageous and revered leaders in the civil rights movement of the South. And, of course, …white activists like Anne Braden, who dared to stand up for justice and freedom at the risk of being attacked and ostracized in her own southern community.
Ransby also points out that
part of remembering King’s legacy is remembering the dangers of political repression and vitriolic persecution. Recent events in Tucson come to mind. King lived under a constant fear of assassination because his visibility and outspokenness made him a target. But something else made him a target, too: The way in which his critics vilified him, attributed sinister motives to his actions, called him un-American and a danger to the traditional values of our nation. Those folks . . . were not outliers in King’s time. They were politicians and editors, civic leaders and sheriffs.
The violent rampage that left six people dead in Arizona last week and many others injured was carried out by one troubled man. However, he chose a political event and targeted a politician. And he did so in a climate where that same politician had been a literal bulls-eye on political hit list. When violent metaphors are used to “target” opponents we should not be surprised when one disturbed person takes the bait.
Ransby points out the irony that
Tea party organizers can bring guns to rallies and put their political rivals under bulls-eyes on websites and have that accepted as legitimate political activity, while non-violent activists who criticize government policy are under attack by the FBI.
She observes that last June's Supreme Court decision against the Humanitarian Law Project,
essentially criminalized their efforts to offer conflict resolution training to people immersed in violent conflicts around the world. This decision made it a crime to provide “material support” to any organization the government designates a terrorist group, but established a ridiculously broad definition of support. The ruling has been the basis of FBI raids on the homes of activists who support Palestinian rights and oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The people the FBI is targeting do not advocate the use of guns or even own them; they advocate peace and justice.
King, too, was a peace activist who supported anti-colonial struggles and was under constant FBI surveillance. His phone was tapped, his mail was opened, he was followed and watched. People he trusted were enlisted to spy on him. Government agents plotted how to undermine his leadership, especially as he moved more toward the left.
So, let’s remember three things this MLK Day: the honorable tradition of progressive democratic radicalism that looks deeply and widely at the causes of injustice and tries to root them out; the danger of investing all our hopes and dreams in a savior-type leader; and the persistent danger of witch hunts that seek to silence and intimidate dissidents and make everyone else afraid to come to their aid.
In King’s words, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. . . . .” Instead of praising King for battles already fought, let’s look around at the pervasive injustices that still exist, from the obscene disparity in wealth to the abandonment of our educational institutions. From the unchecked growth of prisons for the poor to the escalating oppression of the Palestinian people in Israel and Palestine. Let’s pay tribute to King, and Baker and Hamer and all the others who fought the good fight by building a sustainable movement for a more just and humane world.
For the Old Mole Variety Hour