Friday, April 4, 2008

Honoring the Real Martin Luther King

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."--Dom Helder Camara, Brazilian archbishop

No one likes to call a movement a failure, but after 1968 the civil rights movement in this country died. Of course, its successes legally before 1968, particularly the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Act, cannot be ignored. They were monumental achievements brought on by years of pressure by people within the African American community (as well as some from outside) for their rights to be treated as equal citizens. In addition, some of the positive changes in racial attitudes in this country cannot be underestimated. Most Americans today do not oppose interracial marriages, dating, adoptions, and Americans consider themselves less prejudiced than in the past.

The failure of the civil rights movement, however, was crystallized in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Unlike most of the portrayals today of King as a modern saint, he was a deeply hated man in his lifetime. Indeed, towards the last days of his life, he had become somewhat of an outcast. The black nationalists disliked his views on nonviolence, the mainstream liberal leadership of the civil rights movement was upset by his coming out against the Vietnam War in 1967, and naturally white Southerners and the federal government, specifically the FBI under J. Edger Hoover, tried everything possible to bring down King, ultimately succeeding forty years ago today.

The assassination of Martin Luther King created an understandable martyrdom, but it also made it possible for conservative whites and those critical of Martin Luther King to claim him as their own. To what extent this has occurred is beyond doubt. Even the most right-wing Christian today sees their movement tied around his message. Here are but a few examples of the distortions.

In today’s parlance, Dr. King's movement would be called 'faith-based.' Unlike the doggedly secular groups that now campaign for government action in the name of 'social justice,' King’s coalition was explicitly religious, rooted in churches and Christian morality....It is not a coincidence that conservatives share Dr. King's core principles, as they are the principles of the American Founding and continue to guide us today."--by Carolyn Garris

"King's was not a world of moral relativism, but of self-evident truth and moral law. When he spoke of his dream he was appealing not to what divides us but to what we have in common, to the larger principles and ideals which transcend our diversity."--Matthew Spalding

"Martin Luther King wasn't Jesus. He was a man. A flawed man who did great things and bad things. He is not your pet or your imaginary friend. He did not live and die in order to validate your liberal worldview parking tickets forty years later and into perpetuity."--Kathy Shaidle

Of course, not all conservatives feel this way. There are still some on the white right who despise everything about Dr. King, but in this day and age they are far and few between. If one read the average columnist from the New York Post, The Weekly Standard, or, you would think Dr. King was a modern Ronald Reagan, righting the wrongs of the world for individual liberty. Liberals too have bought this line of Dr. King, because no one likes to say the obvious. Martin Luther King was not just a believer in civil rights. He believed civil rights was part and parcel of the larger struggle for social justice, economic justice, and the struggle against war. This meant he was critical of not just segregation, but of American capitalism and our violently interventionist foreign policy after World War Two. Yes, dare we say it, Martin Luther King was a socialist. He considered himself towards the end of his life, which was why he was in Memphis in April 1968 to begin with--to help sanitation workers striking for a living wage.

If anyone doubts this side of King, here are but a few examples of what he really believed, the expressions of which you will not soon be seeing on Fox News anytime soon.

"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."

"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."

"We must create full employment, or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available... Work of this sort could be enormously increased, and we are likely to find that the problem of housing, education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished."

"Not only do we see poverty abroad, I would remind you that in our own nation there are about forty million people who are poverty-stricken. I have seen them here and there. I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia. I have just been in the process of touring many areas of our country and I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying...This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it."

That is the Martin Luther King we are not taught in our schools, in our homes, and in our lives, 40 years later. And his message is as true now as it was over four decades ago. Consider this:
  • Over 40 million Americans still live in poverty.
  • Over 45 million Americans go without health care.
  • 1 out of 3 African American males will find themselves a part of the criminal justice system of this country at least once in their lives.
  • Poverty and unemployment rates for African Americans remain twice (200%) as high as for whites.
  • Median incomes (the numerically middle income ordered by pay from lowest to highest) has, adjusted for inflation, decreased 34 out of the last 35 years.
  • There are over 3.5 million homeless in the US, including 1.3 million children, for a significant period of time.
Those are the facts, regardless of our view of them. And just the same as in 1968, whether or not we do anything about trying to eliminate these problems in America is entirely up to us. In the four decades since Dr. King's murder, we have shown that we prefer not to address these issues. If we want to truly live the message of Dr. King, those maladies which still persist in this country, of poverty, war, and racism, need to be alleviated--problems which so many owners of this country's polity continue to see as virtues of an unfettered market system that divines all and hell-bent on bombing this planet into a "free" world of subservient peoples.

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