“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.; April 4, 1967
President Donald Trump has become the latest in a long line of Republican politicians who have attempted to whitewash MLK’s message and legacy to fit their own narrative, one which stands almost completely at odds with what the greatest “social justice warrior” this nation has ever produced fought and died for.
Today, King alone rightfully dominates the White House website, whose headline hails him as the “model of an American patriot.” Like countless conservatives before, the site predictably cites King’s best-known speech in an attempt to disarm and discredit those like the Black Lives Matter movement who today carry on the peaceful fight for racial equality, peace and economic justice:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
The White House statement continued:
The last best hope for true racial progress, King realized, was solidarity: For people to see and treat one another as equals, they had to feel the tugs of a bond far stronger than either race or politics. For King, that bond was America.
Had Trump been president in King’s time, he certainly wouldn’t be lionizing a man the FBI called a “communist subversive” and who was seen as virulently anti-American by countless millions of US conservatives at the time. Yes, King was a tireless advocate for racial justice. But he knew that racism was only part of a much bigger problem.
In an April 4, 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence,” King blasted the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” the US government, which “may have killed a million [Vietnamese], mostly children,” and forced millions more into what he called “concentration camps” while “supporting one of the most vicious modern dictators” in a war of oppression against a people fighting a multigenerational freedom struggle. He even compared US conduct in the war to that of Nazi Germany in World War II — “we test out our latest weapons on [the Vietnamese people] just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe.”
King, who called US destruction in Vietnam “demonic,” knew his country was on the wrong side of history and that “none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved” in the war. Lamenting that Washington chose to side with France, the colonizing power, over Vietnamese independence hero Ho Chi Minh, who quoted verbatim part of the Declaration of Independence in his country’s own revolutionary proclamation, King said “we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.” He declared:
“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.”
To many conservatives, it was bad enough that King, who a top FBI official calledAmerica’s “most dangerous Negro,” was fighting to liberate black Americans from Jim Crow oppression. But it was when his struggle evolved to include a global fight against economic injustice and militant imperialism that he was really branded an anti-American threat. The FBI, through its COINTELPRO program, had already gone so far as to try to coerce King into committing suicide; things would only get worse from there.
In late 1967 King announced he was launching a Poor People’s Campaign to fight a system that perpetuated “low minimum wages, a degrading system of inadequate welfare, subsidies of the rich and unemployment and underemployment of the poor, a war mentality, slums, starvation and racism.”
King, who asserted that “there is something wrong with capitalism,” that “there must be a better distribution of wealth” and that “maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism,” derided America’s hypocrisy, noting…
“…the spectacle of cities burning while the national government speaks of repression instead of rehabilitation… children starving in Mississippi while prosperous farmers are rewarded for not producing food [and] Negro mothers leaving children in tenements to work in neighborhoods where people of color cannot live.”
MLK called for a “true revolution of values” that would “cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies,” and “look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
The government responded to King’s final effort with a plan to activate thousands of army troops to occupy Washington, DC. in the event that the Negroes got too uppity during the new campaign. King was undaunted. He was also shot dead within a few short months of launching the Poor People’s Campaign. It may be no accident that King was assassinated during this most controversial period of his activism.
If he were alive today, King would sadly find that his words of half a century ago ring as true as ever in the United States of today. “We are already at war with and among ourselves,” he said in 1967:
“Affluent Americans are locked into suburbs of physical comfort and mental insecurity; poor Americans are locked inside ghettoes of material privation and spiritual debilitation; and all of us can almost feel the presence of a kind of social insanity which could lead to national ruin.”
King would surely have derided now, as he did then, “a nation [that] gorged on money while millions of its citizens are denied a good education, adequate health services, decent housing, meaningful employment and even respect” where poor people “are then told to be responsible.” In this day of trillion dollar “defense” budgets and never-ending war, King would surely continue to warn that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He would still call the United States, which has killed more than a million men, women and children in half a dozen mostly Muslim nations this century, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He no doubt would also remain a committed pacifist who would urge us, as he did in 1968, “to understand the arguments of those who are called ‘enemy’” and, for the young men and women of America to refuse to fight a war against poor dark-skinned people on the other side of the world.
If MLK were alive today — he would be in his late 80s — he would also surely march against police brutality and mass incarceration with Black Lives Matter, take a knee with Colin Kaepernick, decry bigoted Muslim bans and border walls, continue advocating for democratic socialist principles like universal basic income and, without a doubt, be one of the nation’s most outspoken voices against Trumpism. He would let it be known in no uncertain terms that there aren’t “two sides” to racist violence, that “very fine people” don’t march in white supremacist rallies and that there are no “shithole countries,” only countries whose development has been thwarted by past and present foreign capitalist domination, oppression and exploitation.
If he were alive today, there’s a very good chance the national security state would still surveil and sabotage King — he’d very likely be branded by Trump a “black identity extremist,” or maybe even a “domestic terrorist.”
This is the “model American patriot” the White House is honoring today? What must Trump’s base think? In his MLK Day address, the president solemnly affirmed a “pledge to fight for [King’s] dream of equality, freedom, justice, and peace.” Then where is Trump’s support for the New Poor People’s Campaign? For Black Lives Matter? For a foreign policy that does not include, as he vowed, “bombing the shit out of” our enemies and “taking out their families?”
“The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve,” King said as the death and destruction mounted in Vietnam, adding that we must “admit that we have been wrong from the beginning.” Does this sound in any way congruous with what we know of Trump? If he were still alive today, Martin Luther King, Jr. would be working with all his might to tear down Trumpism. And then even the man who is arguably the greatest American who ever lived would be subjected to Trump’s racist twitterhea.
Donald Trump isn’t the first Republican to attempt to whitewash Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy, and he won’t be the last. But rarely if ever has someone who has repeatedly demonstrated complete contempt for the principles of peace, justice and equality espoused by King had the temerity to try to co-opt his message.