Yesterday, the Washington Post lead editorial prominently quotes King: “‘When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,’ Dr. King said. ‘This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.'”
The people behind the King Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. are planning on using that exact same quote from his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. If all goes as scheduled, come April, ground will be broken for a statue of King with the above inscription on it, frozen for the future.
The quote uses a financial analogy for justice; subpar for King in my view. Its substance will seem to many to be a validation of a corporate capitalist future for African Americans, quite acceptable to those atop the Washington Post as well as Verizon and other corporate backers of the MLK Memorial. And the quote is a plea for the United States to live up to its stated goals; it does not seek to radically alter the structure of the nation and of the world, as King sought to do. At minimum, other specific aspects of King must be given prominence.
Jared Ball has warned of the “assassination of the image and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Says Ball: “While his name is evoked each year, and at times of heightened political activity even more so, this reference comes specifically to recast a revolutionary into one comfortable with current and false notions of ‘progress’ or ‘change.’ Barak Obama borrows King’s oratorical flare (attempts at least) with none of his politics; Hillary Clinton misuses his legacy to give undo credit to the executive branch for a movement’s struggle for equality while simultaneously suggesting that King himself saw president Johnson’s signing of Civil Rights legislation as completion of victory and liberation. He most certainly did not.”
Moreover, King was a universal figure, not a nationalist one. His greatest influences were Jesus (a Palestinian Jew), Tolstoy (a pacifist Russian Christian novelist) and Gandhi (a leader of India from the Hindu tradition).
(Even some of the others honored prominently on the Mall — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, presidents all — have their universal statements highlighted in monuments. Atop the Jefferson Memorial: Is etched: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man .”)
King offered damning indictments not only of racism, but of capitalism, of militarism — and of nationalism and imperialism; this is most clear in his speeches against the Vietnam War in the last year of his life:
King came out most publicly against the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York, exactly one year before his assassination. In that speech, he shows a palpable shame at having been rather quiet on the issue. Major media outlets immediately attacked him. The Washington Post patronized that “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.” He was also criticized by groups like the NAACP.
While King in his own day was hurled derision for such stances, today, his statements are iced out of the record. We are offered a petrified King, not a flesh and blood man who cried upon reading the New York Times attack on him.
On April 30, 1967 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (a pulpit Obama just tried to fill), King replied to his critics:
“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. … There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that would praise you when you say, ‘Be nonviolent toward [Selma, Ala. sheriff] Jim Clark!’ but will curse and damn you when you say, ‘Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children!’ There is something wrong with that press! …
“To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. …
“I’m 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. … When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our present policies. … True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation.”
Many people clearly didn’t want to hear it; King, even more emphatically in his “The Drum Major Instinct” address — part of which was used in his own eulogy — again at Ebenezer Baptist on February 4, 1968.
I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy. And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years. (Yeah) If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody’s going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere. And then another one is going to drop. And don’t let anybody fool you, this can happen within a matter of seconds. (Amen) They have twenty-megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds, with everybody wiped away, and every building. And we can do the same thing to Russia and China.
But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.
God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.
Perennial presidential adviser and pundit David Gergen, after Obama won the Iowa caucus, noted that his speech was very nationalistic. Said Obama: “In lines that stretched around schools and churches, in small towns and in big cities, you came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents, to stand up and say that we are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come.”
Is that really the message for our time? A retrenchment of nationalism — and quite likely a facilitation of further neo-imperialism? As King was increasingly articulating, especially in the last year of his life, the message for our time is that that we are all one people — not from the U.S., not from any other country. All humanity. Virtually no political figure in the U.S. today articulates anything approaching this (Kucinich perhaps does so occasionally.) But King did do so, and paid for it. Any monument to King that does not recognize that would be an insult to him and to the entire World.
Many of SAM HUSSEINI’s writings are at husseini.org.