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Every year around Martin Luther King Day, my friend Geov Parrish writes a column to remind everyone that King was not the faded, huggable icon of goodness that has come to replace him. He wasn’t an orator saying “can’t we all just get along?”, he was a rebel, who spoke out and organized against racism, poverty, violence, exploitation, American foreign policy, materialism, and American hypocrisy. During his lifetime, many people hated King. Hated him. Feared him. Demonized him. Threatened him. And, of course, eventually murdered him.
I’m kicking myself for missing it, but the cartoon The Boondocks recently aired an episode in which it turns out that King survived his assassination, and woke up from a decades-long coma in modern day. Needless to say, he was quickly denounced as an enemy of America and terrorist sympathizer.
Just a reminder, but the government was against King too:
The government began spying on MLK in the late 1950s for his alleged Communist influences but quickly shifted to investigating King’s role as a civil rights leader.
In a 1963 internal memo, counterintelligence specialist Charles D. Brennan stated that civil rights agitation represented a clear threat to “the established order” of the U.S. and that “King is growing in stature daily as the leader among leaders of the Negro movement.” COINTELPRO head William C. Sullivan responded in a letter: “We must mark [King] now, if we have not before, as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security . . . it may be unrealistic to limit [our actions against King] to legalistic proofs that would stand up in court or before Congressional Committees.”
Instead of sticking to the law, then, the FBI aimed to discredit King by any means necessary. Agents tapped his phone, bugged his rooms, trumpeted his supposed commie connections, and his sexual proclivities, and sicced the Internal Revenue Service on him. When it was announced in 1964 that King would receive a Nobel Peace Prize, the FBI grew desperate. Hoping to prevent King from accepting the award, the Bureau mailed him a package containing a tape of phone calls documenting King’s extramarital affairs and an anonymous, threatening letter (shown here in censored form). In barely concealed language, King was told to commit suicide before the award ceremony or risk seeing his “filthy, abnormal fraudulent self” exposed to the nation.
[See a copy of the threatening letter here]
King always not always successful in his campaigns. Witnesses in this article argue that King accepted a weak deal when campaigning for an end to housing segregation in Chicago. Despite all our stereotypes of Southern racism, the raw and furious hate from whites in Northern Chicago seemed too much for King and nonviolence to overcome.
I find that King’s most powerful speech is not his “I Have a Dream” speech, although that one of course is moving and inspirational. I think the speech that everyone needs to read is Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence. Some of it is very time-sensitive and detailed, information about US actions in Vietnam (but not so specific that Juan Cole can’t look at the text of the speech and make a very compelling argument for what a modern day King’s position would be on the Iraq war). But more than anything, it is a call for global revolution, for the end of war, injustice, riches and poverty, for the destruction of all of the values and institutions and beliefs that stop human beings from taking care of each other, the way we so obviously could.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an 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, it 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 concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
There’s another part of this speech which helps spell out something I’ve been unable to adequately phrase myself, something important.
It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken — the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.
It seems clear to me that the United States is on the wrong side of many issues, and that the actions taken by our government, our corporations, and ourselves as individuals often make things worse for the other 5+ billion people on Planet Earth. Masses suffer for us to live with the convenience we do, and we are scarcely aware of it. And it is my belief that if you lay the facts out for Americans, if you expose them to these truths and let them see things in a new way, that most of them will say “oh God, this is wrong! What are we going to do to fix this?”
That is my belief. But my fear is that they won’t. That when faced with the choice between radical lifestyle change and global injustice, that they’ll choose the injustice. That folks will say “yeah, my shoes are made by 14 year old girls in Vietnam who make pennies a day, but so what?”, or “it’s sad that all those Arabs have to live in ruthless dictatorships, but I can’t live without my gas-guzzling SUV”.
I guess that’s one of the core reasons I write, hoping that my fellow Americans aren’t beyond redemption, that we can play a role in the reshaping of the world for maximum benefit, that we are not truly the enemies of humanity.