Mid-January means it's time to commemorate the birthday of a true African-American peacemaker who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for actual peacemaking work. But once again, as they do every year, our politicians, our pundits, and our corporate media will narrow down Dr. King's life and legacy to that of strictly black-white civil rights with convenient cliche's such as "slain civil rights leader" and countless, predictable references to his "I Have A Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington, as though that was the only important speech he ever made. That way, they can manage to make it seem as though his development as a world, not merely U.S., thinker and leader was frozen in that summer of '63, and that his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize was the "capping off" of his public career. And the key word in the previous sentence is "manage," as in managing or controlling.
But inconveniently for those in power who still attempt to control perceptions of reality, King continued to grow as a thinker and leader for the last five years of his life till his murder on April 4, 1968. And in those five years, what he learned and realized transcended the issue of black-white civil rights and was crystallized in the speech he gave at Riverside Church in upper Manhattan, New York City on April 4, 1967, a year to the day of his assassination, and, no doubt, one of the main reasons for his violent silencing. And that speech is now more relevant, and more valuable, than ever, if we will only pay attention.
In that pivotal speech, titled "Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence" (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm), King powerfully expressed the connections he had realized between the struggle for minority civil rights, the plagues of greed and materialism inherent in our economic ideology, and the military violence and terror our ruling class uses to maintain its dominance over oppressed people here and abroad so it can maintain its power and wealth, regardless of the destruction it visits upon people and the planet. He knew the time had come for what he called "a true revolution of values" on the part of all of us, as to the way we live, the way we treat others, and the way we treat our planet.
He was especially mindful of the fierce ruling class opposition to this "values revolution," and to the dire consequences of that opposition, when he quoted President John F. Kennedy:
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 investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
As dangerous and destructive as those "giant triplets" were in 1967, they are immensely more so now. King understood how our extreme materialism causes us, as Oscar Wilde said, to know, "the price of everything and the value of nothing." It causes us to commodify other people, especially dark-skinned ones who speak other languages than ours, and to commodify the earth, in both cases for what "resources" we can extract, be they cheap, de-humanizing labor or energy and minerals, regardless of the destructive consequences.
It was this extreme materialism which helped fuel the violent racism which exterminated millions of natives in this hemisphere beginning with the European conquests of what was arrogantly and ignorantly called the New World. It was this extreme materialism which also helped fuel the violent racism which ripped Africans from their homelands, forced them into the brutality of slavery, and killed millions of them on the Middle Passage to the New World and then in the Americas in the centuries since.
It is that same racism which, at its base, cannot see different-looking, different-speaking people as fellow humans, but prefers to dehumanize them as the alien "Other," thus resulting in brutal mistreatment, always justified by ideology, culture, religion, or other rationales, all of which are "superior", of course, to that of the "Others." The more than three hundred treaties with Native Americans broken by the U.S. government, the "Indian schools" and the reservation system to "Americanize" them and keep them out of sight, the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, legal discrimination, still-existing racist judicial system with its disproportionate numbers of African-American and Hispanic males incarcerated or executed, all resulted. That same arrogance, called "Manifest Destiny," had also driven the U.S. to kill nearly one million Filipinos after the Spanish-American War because the U.S. wanted a secure military base in the Pacific near China and Japan, while the Filipinos naively expected independence after centuries of Spanish rule. Of course, that slaughter was euphemistically categorized by the U.S. government and its corporate funders as "uplifting" or "civilizing" or even "Christianizing" the natives of the Philippines.