“The Real Issue to be Faced”
On the Assassination (or Execution) and Suppressed Radical Legacy of Martin Luther King*
* An abbreviated version of these comments was delivered in downtown Iowa City, Iowa on April 4, 2011, at an Iowa City Federation of Labor rally in support of public sector workers and commemorating the 43rd anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I want to thank the Iowa City Federation of Labor for having this event and inviting me to speak tonight on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination or perhaps the execution of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have been 83 years old today. I still remember the day after King died. I stood at my dining room window as a massive procession of silent black mourners passed beneath my family’s apartment at Fiftieth Street and Woodlawn Avenue on the South Side of Chicago. Thousands upon thousands of Chicagoans were walking in collective bereavement from all-black sections north of Forty Seventh Street to all-black sections south of Sixtieth Street. Meanwhile, whole city blocks were in flames on the city’s black West Side. The West Side rebellion provoked the city’s racist white mayor Richard J. Daley to issue a subsequently notorious “Shoot to Kill” order, telling his police chief to target black “arsonists” for summary street executions. I could feel the life being sucked out of the nation and the world and the onset of a long dark reaction.
King was killed as many of you know, while lending his support to striking public sector sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. It was one of many times in his life that King had acted in support of organized labor and striking workers. He was also about to lead a Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice in Washington D.C. and across the country.
A self-declared democratic socialist, Dr. King was deeply committed to economic and social justice broadly conceived and not just to racial justice alone. As he said and wrote more than once, he was not interested in the devil’s gift of equality without opportunity and justice. At the same time, he did not believe in the desirability or the possibility of achieving meaningful domestic progress within a framework of imperial militarism. By the middle 1960s, by 1965 and 1966, King referred repeatedly and in various ways to what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: racism, economic inequality, and militarism. On April 4, 1967, King gave his famous “Time to Break the Silence” oration against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York City. This is the speech where King referred to the United States as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world today,” detailed why the achievement of justice at home required confrontation with Empire, and argued that that “a nation approaches spiritual death when it spends more on military defense than on social uplift.” Exactly one year later, King lay dead from an assassin’s bullet under circumstances that remain unclear to this day. American and world history might have unfolded more progressively to some relevant degree had this critical murder not taken place.
As a left writer, author, and speaker, I often get e-mails and Facebook messages from predominantly white male 30-something conspiracy theorists who want me to jump on board with their elaborate “inside job” ideas about 9/11, the killings of the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s, the supposed CIA-sponsored childhood and education of Obama, and even the fake nature (I am not kidding) of the 1969 moon landing. Leaving aside the complexity and implausibility of their speculations, I generally write these theorists back with a question: “if you are so obsessed with government assassination conspiracies why don’t you seem to care about April 4, 1968 and the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King?” The King case is chock full of the sorts of unexplained loose ends and contradictory facts that the conspiracy crowd loves. (People who want to go down those dark roads can start by reading William F. Pepper’s book An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King [New York/London: Verso, 2003]) At the same time and more to my point, King was a plausible target for elite execution in a way that the Kennedy bothers simply were not. Liberal and Orwellian/Oliver Stonian rehabilitation efforts and wishful historical thinking aside, the Kennedys were ruling class men of American Empire and Inequality, incorporated. King was not. He was an actual radical-democratic threat to dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines, which is why the Kennedy and Johnson administrations wiretapped and otherwise harassed him and his inner circle with impunity.
Like Helen Keller and Albert Einstein, the democratic socialist Dr. King was much more radical then the keepers of the collective American public memory allow most of us to know. “The black revolution,” Dr. King argued in a 1968 essay titled “A Testament of Hope,” is “exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests,” King wrote, “that the radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”
This is part of why he turned down repeated requests from progressive politicos that he run for president. The changes we needed to avert catastrophe and build a human civilization, King felt, could not be limited to the periodic re-shuffling of the names and faces and parties in nominal power. It had to go deeper than replacing one brand or shape or color of corporate- and military-captive office-holders with another such brand once every two, four or eight years.
If Dr. King were alive today, he would, I am convinced, have expanded his “triple evils that are interrelated” to include sexism and environmental exterminism or ecocide. He would have spoken in righteous terms against the lax regulations and oil addiction that permitted British Petroleum Deepwater crime against the ocean last year, against the ever-escalating destruction of livable ecology that the petro-profits system is advancing at a rapid pace, and against the unacceptable risks to public health posed by nuclear power – risks that have become all too real in the wake of the ongoing Fukushima disaster in Japan.
King would by now be relatively unimpressed, I think, by the fact that the current president of the United States is black given the fact that that president has continued the standard Washington practice of serving corporate and financial dictatorship and shocking economic inequality at home and military empire and global injustice abroad. In the first two days of his supposedly “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, Obama launched more than 200 cruise missiles, each costing more than one million dollars – a remarkable statement of what King considered America’s “perverted priorities” in a time when 25 million Americans are unemployed and 50 million U.S. households suffer from food insecurity. Were he alive today, King would condemn the obscene war profits that flow to military “defense” (empire) contractors like Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Rockwell Collins as billions suffer the elite-imposed crime of poverty at home and abroad.
He would be appalled by the right wing assault on public sector workers in Wisconsin and other states across the Midwest and the country – the biggest attack on organized labor in recent American history. He would have noted how this attack is part of the broader top-down class war of the wealthy and narcissistic Few against the last outposts of the greatest anti-poverty program in American history – the American labor movement. He would have noted how the attack is based on a number of lies including the false claim that public sector workers are over-paid relative to private sector workers and the false claim that public sector wages and benefits and collective bargaining rights are the cause of state deficits. He would note the primary role of tax breaks, exemptions, and loopholes for the rich and corporate Few and the obscenity of military empire in creating the deficits that policymakers use as the pretext to slash benefits and opportunities for everyday working people and the poor. He would have approved the remarkable Winter Solider testimony of the young American Iraq War and occupation veteran Mike Prysnor, who said the following in December of 2009, 11 months into the “hope and change” presidency of the Empire’s New Clothes Barack Obama:
“I threw families on to the street in Iraq only to come home and see families thrown on to the street in this county in this tragic, tragic and unnecessary foreclosure crisis. I mean to wake up and realize that our real enemies are not in some distant land. They’re not people whose names we don’t know and whose culture we don’t understand. The enemy is people we know very well and people we can identify. The enemy is a system that wages war when it’s profitable. The enemy is the CEOs who lay us off from our jobs when it’s profitable. It’s the insurance companies who deny us health care when it’s profitable. It’s the banks who take away our homes when it’s profitable. Our enemy is not 5000 miles away. They are right here at home. If we organize with our sisters and brothers we can stop this war. We can stop this government. And we can create a better world.”
If King were alive today, he would have been heartened by the extraordinary public sector worker rebellion that recently took place in Madison, Wisconsin. As a national leader who saw no point in running for president, he would have seen that rebellion as deeply and favorably consistent with something that the late radical American historian Howard Zinn (another key veteran of the 1960s black Civil Rights Movement) said in 2009. “There's hardly anything more important that people can learn,” Zinn argued two years ago, “than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating….It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama’s presidency,” Zinn added, “that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change.”
At the same time, I am convinced that King would be concerned about the significant extent to which labor leaders, politicians, and the media seem to have succeeded in taking the Wisconsin workers struggle off the streets and channeling it into the system-safe avenues of judicial wrangling and electoral politics. Independent action from below --- regardless of which of the two corporate and imperial parties holds nominal power in Washington, the state capitols, and city hall --- was what Dr. King was all about. He died on the eve of leading such action for economic justice with a liberal New Deal Democrat (Lyndon Johnson, perhaps the most genuinely anti-poverty president in American history) sitting in the White House. Independent action not just for small reforms or for a “new” set of elite-vetted “leaders” to sweep into office but ultimately and ever more urgently for “the radical reconstruction of society… the real issue to be faced.”
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org)is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org