As the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's violent death (on April 4, 1968) grows closer, you can expect to hear more and more in U.S. corporate media about the real and alleged details of his immediate physical assassination (or perhaps execution). You will not be told about King's subsequent and ongoing moral, intellectual, and ideological assassination.
I am referring to the conventional, neo-McCarthyite, and whitewashed narrative of King that is purveyed across the nation every year, especially during and around the national holiday that bears his name. This domesticated, bourgeois airbrushing portrays King as a mild liberal reformist who wanted little more than a few basic civil rights adjustments in a supposedly good and decent American System -- a loyal supplicant who was grateful to the nation's leaders for finally making noble alterations. This year was no exception.
The official commemorations never say anything about the Dr. King who studied Marx sympathetically at a young age and who said in his last years that "if we are to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism." They delete the King who wrote that "the real issue to be faced" beyond "superficial" matters was the need for a radical social revolution.
It deletes the King who went on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in late 1967 to reflect on how little the Black freedom struggle had attained beyond some fractional changes in the South. He deplored "the arresting of the limited forward progress" Blacks and their allies had attained "by [a] white resistance [that] revealed the latent racism that was [still] deeply rooted in U.S. society."
"As elation and expectations died," King explained on the CBC, "Negroes became more sharply aware that the goal of freedom was still distant and our immediate plight was substantially still an agony of deprivation. In the past decade, little has been done for Northern ghettos. All the legislation was to remedy Southern conditions -- and even these were only partially improved." Worse than merely limited, King felt, the gains won by Black Americans during what he considered just the "first phase" of their freedom struggle (1955-1965) were dangerous in that they "brought whites a sense of completion" -- a preposterous impression that the so-called "Negro problem" had been solved and that there was therefore no more basis or justification for further black activism. "When Negroes assertively moved on to ascend to the second rung of the ladder," King noted, "a firm resistance from the white community developed...In some quarters it was a courteous rejection, in others it was a singing white backlash. In all quarters unmistakably, it was outright resistance."
Explaining to his CBC listeners the remarkable wave of race riots that washed across U.S. cities in the summers of 1966 and 1967, King made no apologies for Black violence. He blamed "the white power structure...still seeking to keep the walls of segregation and inequality intact" for the disturbances. He found the leading cause of the riots in the reactionary posture of "the white society, unprepared and unwilling to accept radical structural change," which" produc[ed] chaos... by telling Blacks (whose expectations for substantive change had been aroused) "that they must expect to remain permanently unequal and permanently poor."
King also blamed the riots in part on Washington's imperialist and mass-murderous war on Vietnam. Along with the misery it inflicted on Indochina, King said, the United States' savage military aggression against Southeast Asia stole resources from Lyndon Johnson's briefly declared and barely fought "War on Poverty." It sent poor Blacks to the front killing lines to a disproportionate degree. It advanced the notion that violence was a reasonable response and even a solution to social and political problems.
Black Americans and others sensed what King called "the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit," King said on the CBC, adding that he "could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor."
Racial hypocrisy aside, King said that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense [here he might better have said "military empire"] than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom."
Did the rioters disrespect the law, as their liberal and conservative critics alike charged? Yes, King said, but added that the rioters' transgressions were "derivative crimes...born of the greater crimes of the...policy-makers of the white society," who "created discrimination...created slums [and] perpetuate unemployment, ignorance, and poverty... [T]he white man," King elaborated, "does not abide by law in the ghetto. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provision of public services. The slums are a handiwork of a vicious system of the white society."
Did the rioters engage in violence? Yes, King said, but noted that their aggression was "to a startling degree...focused against property rather than against people." He observed that "property represents the white power structure, which [the rioters] were [quite understandably] attacking and trying to destroy." Against those who held property "sacred," King argued that "Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround with rights and respect, it has no personal being."
What to do? King advanced radical changes that went against the grain of the nation's corporate state, reflecting his agreement with New Left militants that "only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather in man or faulty operations." King advocated an emergency national program providing either decent-paying jobs for all or a guaranteed national income "at levels that sustain life in decent circumstances." He also called for the "demolition of slums and rebuilding by the population that lives in them."
His proposals, he said, aimed for more than racial justice alone. Seeking to abolish poverty for all, including poor whites, he felt that "the Negro revolt" was properly challenging each of what he called "the interrelated triple evils" of racism, economic injustice/poverty (capitalism) and war (militarism and imperialism). The Black struggle had thankfully "evolve[ed] into more than a quest for [racial] desegregation and equality," King said. It had become "a challenge to a system that has created miracles of production and technology" but had failed to "create justice."
"If humanism is locked outside the [capitalist] system," King said on CBC five months before his assassination (or execution), "Negroes will have revealed its inner core of despotism and a far greater struggle for liberation will unfold. The United States is substantially challenged to demonstrate that it can abolish not only the evils of racism but the scourge of poverty and the horrors of war..."
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