Martin Luther King, Jr. is rightfully known around the world as the greatest champion for racial justice the United States has ever produced. However, this is only part of his legacy. In fact, he was fighting economic inequality and US militarism when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, but this last — and some say most important — part of his life has been largely whitewashed and forgotten by a nation that continues to commit the same crimes, both at home and abroad, that King decried half a century ago.
King was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike and promoting his planned Poor People’s Campaign march on Washington, which would take place without him later that spring. The Nobel peace laureate blasted an economic 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.” He 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.” He also 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.”
King’s solution 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 to “look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
Within the halls of power, alarm bells were screaming. It was one thing to challenge racial discrimination, but quite another to attack the very foundation of the nation’s power — corporate capitalism and militant imperialism. The federal government responded to the Poor People’s Campaign by mobilizing 20,000 troops to occupy Washington, DC if things got out of hand. The FBI, which was illegally monitoring King through its COINTELPRO program and had already gone so far as to try to coerce him into committing suicide, worked with white supremacists to spread lies about the campaign, stoking fears of communist-controlled black militancy.
King remained undaunted. There were too many poor, dark people being failed by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s inadequate War on Poverty at home and too many poor, dark people being killed by the administration’s unending war against peasants fighting for their freedom in Southeast Asia. In an April 4, 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence,” King condemned “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 “concentration camps” while “supporting one of the most vicious modern dictators” in a war of oppression against a people fighting a multigenerational struggle against foreign invaders. He even compared US conduct in the war to that of Nazi Germany in World War II, lamenting how “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.”
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 condemned 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.” However, most Americans today revere or at least respect King as one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. That’s great, but it wasn’t always that way. Two years before he was gunned down in Memphis, King — already a Nobel laureate and by far the most famous US civil rights figure — was viewed unfavorably by a solid majority of white Americans, according to a Gallup poll at the time. That same year, a Harris survey revealed that fully 85 percent of white respondents believed civil rights demonstrations were harming the civil rights cause.
The whitewashing of King’s life and legacy increases with each year that passes since his death. Today, Republicans and others have hijacked MLK in their attempts to sell everything from wars of aggression to gun rights to immigrant bans to school privatization and even voter ID laws aimed at reversing the civil rights gains fought and won with the blood and lives of activists including King himself.
To those who know what King really stood for, this gross distortion is glaringly obvious, even laughable. But for countless millions of Americans, deprived as they are of an adequate (or even any) historical education, it is something far more insidious. It is both a deliberate, even Orwellian, effort to both hijack the MLK “brand” for self-serving ends, as well as an attempt to avoid the truth that 50 years after King’s assassination, “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” are as “incapable of being conquered” as they were half a century ago.