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MLK the Revolutionary
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Dr. Martin Luther King has been dead for more than 35 years. Today, the blood of torture victims from Guantanamo to Bagram is seeping into his grave while another sarcastic procession of politicians praise the polite Negro civil rights advocate. They obscure his true epitaph, a radical vision of peace and justice, with profane flowers of hypocrisy and greed; drown his legacy in the putrid Katrina waters of class war and blatant racism; and molest his message of love with oil interests, foreign wars and gun-barrel liberation. In short, as another April denotes the death of the man, Martin Luther King, so too does it commemorate the assassination of his very spirit.
But the time has come to stop giving lip service to the whitewashed version of King the powers that be force-feed us each year, and to take his call to march upon the radical road of living to free humanity of its bondage. We must resurrect the revolutionary King who called on America to give up its materialism, its objectification of human beings; the King who committed himself to economic and social equality for everyone; who unequivocally denounced warfare; repudiated neo-liberalism and an unrestrained, capricious capitalism. We must resurrect the spirit of the man who called on this nation to be "born again" because now more than ever, our country needs redemption, needs a savior, a prophet, needs the radical egalitarian message of Martin Luther King.
War is Not Peace
After more than a decade of serious contemplation, King unwaveringly concluded that no war is worth sacrificing children to. He said, "More and more I have come to the conclusion that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons of war totally rules out the possibilities of war ever serving again as a negative good."
These were not the words of a foolish idealist, but instead, those of an educated man, aided with as much if not more philosophical and historical wisdom, not to mention real-world experience, than anyone in the U.S. Senate or White House today. And while we often hear his name, most Americansof all racesfail to adequately honor his legacy. To truly honor King, we must renounce war and prejudice, not simply read, watch, quote or reflect on his famous "I Have A Dream" speech. That's just the starting point.
The problem with the way great people like King are honored is that their images are polished and cleaned for the masses. These Rockwellian images of picturesque people are then sold to the public as something they had always loved. In truth, King sacrificed himself for the sins of a bigoted nation; rather than coddling the American people, he challenged the white, indolent masses to be better human beings, to reach beyond their own self-interest. He also challenged African American civil rights advocates to look beyond their personal struggle, and stand up against the Vietnam War.
Nothing exemplifies the distortion of King's legacy more fully than when President Bush made a mockery out of the 2003 MLK Day. Before the invasion of Iraq, Bush honored King's day while simultaneously preparing to wage a preemptive war. He even evoked King's own words, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," implying that King would have supported the decision to go to war. Bush went on to say, "As Americans celebrate the 18th national commemoration of the life and legacy of this great leader, we recognize the lasting truth of his words and his legacy..." Nothing could be further from the truth. Ironically, the president, like many before and after him, used the words of a peacemaker as a slogan for impulsive, hegemonic military action.
Adding to his resume of hypocrisy and doubletalk, Bush recently managed to bastardize both King and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy of peacemaking, evoking their names while securing a nuclear deal with India. On March 2, 2006, Bush visited Gandhi's memorial of where he bowed his head, laid a wreath and sprinkled petals at the site. The following day, while announcing a deal that would allow India access to nuclear fuel and technology, Bush praised Gandhi's legacy of peace and his influence on MLK: "India in the 21st century is a natural partner of the United States because we are brothers in the cause of human liberty. Yesterday, I visited a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, and read the peaceful words of a fearless man. His words are familiar in my country because they helped move a generation of Americans to overcome the injustice of racial segregation. When Martin Luther King arrived in Delhi in 1959, he said to other countries, 'I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.'" Bush, on the other hand, goes to the memorials of peacemakers as a pilgrim, but nevertheless leaves a baffled tourist.
But Bush is not alone in this campaign of distorting peace as war. Earlier this year, planners of the San Antonio MLK day march, the largest such event, joined Bush in ignoring King's militant stance against war, when they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a military flyover by two fighter jets. The MLK Commission's decision incensed peace activists who complained that the flyover was a direct offense to King's complete rejection of warfare. Consternated by the opposition's complaints, Rev. Herman Price, the chairman of the city's MLK Commission, said, "They say the planes represent war and bombs and death, but at the same time those planes can also represent our freedom and peace." And Sheila McNeil, City Councilwoman for the district that the march traveled through, added: "[The Military] are the reason why we have peace, and this is MLK's peace march." Apparently the good reverend and Ms. McNeil have been listening too much to President Bush's beloved mantra, "peace is war, war is peace," and not enough of King's own words.
To revive King's spirit, we should begin by touting his emphatic opposition to the military-industrial-complex, which ordinary Americans support each tax year. With the U.S. spending more than the next 14 top military spenders combined (two-fifth's of global spending), Americans would do well to recall these words from King:
"This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, or injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples 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."
As we continue to spend more than $400 billion dollars on military spending (the president has asked for $462.7 billion for 2007) and less than $150 billion on education, health and human services, and the International Assistance Programs combined, that spiritual death looms terrifyingly near. Perhaps the best defense against terrorism would be to punish the warmongers who mar our democracy and threaten democratically elected leaders around the world whom they deem unacceptable, such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Whatever the solution to global terrorism, as King put it, one thing is certain, you can't make peace out of a lust and zeal for war:
"The large power blocs talk passionately of pursuing peace while expanding defense budgets that already bulge, enlarging already awesome armies and devising ever more devastating weapons... Before it is too late, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war."
One For All and All For One
In addition to saving King's message of peace from the war hungry, we must protect his vehement vision of equality for all from people like the homophobes who tried to prop-up their agenda on King's grave. In 2002, The Associated Press (AP) reported that a coalition of several organizations used the legacy of Martin Luther King to encourage voters to repeal Miami-Dade County's gay rights ordinance. According to AP, the group made a reproachful pamphlet complete with the sponsoring effigy of King and the words: "Martin Luther King Jr. would be OUTRAGED! If he knew homosexual extremists were abusing the civil rights movement to get special rights based on their sexual behavior."
Those who knew him best know better. On August 1, 2002, Coretta Scott King said, "I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people." Similarly, she also said at the 25th anniversary luncheon for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund on March 31, 1998, "I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice... But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'"
Adding yet another frustrating layer to the tepid, trivial treatment of deceased visionaries, Coretta's own commitment to gay and lesbian equality was largely glossed over by the mainstream media. Luckily, Deb Price, writing for The Detroit News, set the record straight in her February 6, 2006 column, "King's widow showed equality applies to gays." In the piece, Price not only proves Coretta's commitment to gay and lesbian rights, she also tells of how, before the assault on gay rights in Miami-Dade, Coretta battled bigots in Tampa in 1994 over the same issue:
"Foes of a Tampa, Fla., gay rights ordinance knew whose voice carried the most weight on civil rights. So, in 1994, when they mailed pamphlets to voters and left fliers on windshields at black churches, they dared to claim, 'Martin Luther King Jr. would be outraged if he knew that homosexual extremists were abusing the civil rights movement. Sodomy is not a civil right.'"
Absolutely not true, King's widow immediately corrected. Coretta Scott King fired off a letter to the people of Tampa, urging them "to vote 'no' on any and all attempts to deny the promise of America to any citizen..."
In later years, she declared all discrimination "equally wrong" and stressed "there is a connection between the racist, the anti-Semite, the sexist and the homophobe. They all share a sick need to dehumanize some minority to make themselves feel more adequate."
Having lost her husband to hate violence, Mrs. King reached out to the parents of Matthew Shepard the day after he was brutally murdered for being gay.
In lifting up gay people, Coretta Scott King left our nation an enduring message worthy of being engraved on every heart: "Like Martin, I don't believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others."
Most recently, journalist Max Blumenthal reported that, during the Conservative Christian rally Justice Sunday II, speakers evoked the memory of King and equated his civil rights struggle with the religious right's own movement. According to Blumenthal, "Born-again Watergate felon Chuck Colson declared that the Christian right was doing nothing but 'giving voice' to Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy."
The religious right's business of hate and intolerance is about as far removed from King's message of love and tolerance as hell is from heaven. King reproached the religious zealots of the world who saw religion as a weapon of hate, used to divide human beings rather than unite them:
"But I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind's problems... I've seen too much hate... I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. The beautiful thing is that we aren't moving wrong when we do it because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God. He who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimately reality."
The Failures of Capitalism
Beyond the issue of peace and brotherhood, perhaps the most neglected of King's views is his support for altering the U.S. economic system. At a time when a quarter of the world's financial assets belong to 8.3 millionaires and the U.S. Senate refuses to increase the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage, King's critique of capitalism has never been more relevant. He explained:
"We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity. The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspire men to be more I-centered than thou-centered."
Considering the increasing concentration of wealth among the few, it's no wonder King believed that American society needed to be restructured and called for a broader distribution of wealth. According to a study by the Annie E. Casey, Ford and Rockefeller foundations, "one in every five U.S. jobs pays less than a poverty-level wage for a family of four." As a result, the study concludes "that nearly 39 million Americans, including 20 million children, are members of 'low-income working families'with barely enough money to cover basic needs like housing, groceries and child care." In his own day, King said that "an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring" and seriously questioned claims of private ownership of natural resources.
"See my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question, who owns the iron-ore? You begin to ask the question why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water? ...Now don't think you have me in a bind today, I'm not talking about Communism... My inspiration didn't come from Karl Marx. My inspiration didn't come from Engels; my inspiration didn't come from Trotsky; my inspiration didn't come from Lenin... Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. The kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of Capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It's found in a higher synthesis that can combine the truths of both."
King went on to add that "the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated."
The Courageous Conscience
Above all else, King called on us to have a courageous conscience, unafraid of dissent or its consequence. When he was asked about his anti-war stand during the Vietnam War he answered simply: "Vanity asks the question 'Is it popular?' Conscience asks the question 'Is it right?'"
It is time we make a serious commitment to taking over where Dr. King left off, by standing for free speech, economic equality, and human rights, despite the corporate media's influence on the American masses.
As we reflect on another lost year for King, a year he should've had a chance to experience, we are reminded that now a new shooter has taken aim at his very essence. King's legacy, the project of peace he left behind, is targeted for assassination and, with it, hope for a new nation. It's time to heed his call to service, to action. No longer should we mourn his death, but put our all into preserving his dream and applying his vision.
On April 7, 1957, King gave an emotive, soul-driving description of the process of achieving freedom. In his speech, "The Birth of a New Nation," King declared:
"If there had not been a Gandhi in India with all of his noble followers, India would have never been free. If there had not been an Nkrumah and his followers in Ghana, Ghana would still be a British colony. If there had not been abolitionists in America, both Negro and white, we might still stand today in the dungeons of slavery. And then because there have been, in every period, there are always those people in every period of human history who don't mind getting their necks cut off, who don't mind being persecuted and discriminated and kicked about, because they know that freedom is never given out, but it comes through the persistent and the continual agitation and revolt on the part of those who are caught in the system. Ghana teaches us that."
So did Martin and Coretta.
Now it's time to stick our necks out.
Jeff Nall is a community activist and free-lance writer. He has written for various publications including IMPACT press, Z magazine, Clamor, Liberty, Freethought Today and Toward Freedom. He lives with his wife and daughter in Brevard County, Florida.
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