MLK, American Subversive

Hagiography, in this case the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, has its risks, the politicization of a life to suit the needs of later generations of admirers. Some half-century later, reflecting the evolution of the civil rights movement, his image has been sanitized, now beyond recognition (for those of us who fought alongside him in the 1960s), so that however chiseled in stone, if not to Mount Rushmore proportions, he has been rendered grander yet safer and more innocuous than ever. As the card-board poster of the present-day civil rights movement, itself having lost its purpose, its bite, its radicalism, he is caricatured, albeit perhaps unknowingly, by those who take his name to justify a mode of protest and social thought, as a single-issue (civil rights narrowly conceived) leader very much within the structure and tradition of American democracy. Those who applaud him and honor his life today would shudder at the realization of the SUBVERSIVE content of his actions and, above all, his vision. Even his most fervent admirers do not match him step for step today in the necessary enlargement of goals making the emancipation of humankind possible and practical. Instead, as the tributes roll in, rhetorical overstatement imitating his cadences but not his content, takes over, absent the critical/transcendent issue of social transformation.


Dr. King did not conceive of civil rights in a vacuum. Perhaps as his thought matured, his convictions hardened, he had no choice, that’s how deeply-entrenched segregation was, nationwide, in the 1950s. Lunch-counter desegregation, the right to register and vote, discrimination in education and housing, all were valid goals, singly and together, in marching out of the Dark Ages. But by the time of the March on Washington, late August, 1963, Dr. King and other leaders of the black community, especially those from an earlier generation, some of whom, like Robeson and Du Bois, recognized that single-factored protest, however important, would not avail. Society itself had to be transformed, if any of the changes was to be effective and have meaning. Ergo, while, say, lunch-counter desegregation (I early joined the picket line, along with Gabriel Kolko, on Saturday mornings in front of Woolworth’s in Harvard Square) could be seen as imperative to the struggle for racial equality, even more so Freedom Riders to desegregate interstate commerce, it did not take Dr. King long to realize, from his religious faith, that civil rights was a special case of HUMAN RIGHTS, the latter effectuated by a wider structural transformation.

Why? Because he saw the foundations of American society to be faulty, and by foundations, I mean, for Dr. King, capitalism and militarism as directly related to the degradation of blacks in America. This was neither borne in him since divinity school nor a sudden realization in the middle of the night. But he was not blind. Poverty was everywhere, war, while taking on global proportions likewise, following World War II, now focused clearly on Vietnam, a War Crime of collective proportions indicting the US as having compromised all democratic principles. The March on Washington was an historical watershed, a significant personal turning point for him. Out of that magnificently announced vision, “I have a dream,” two explicit directions, themselves later integrated into one, were articulated in still perhaps inchoate form: antipoverty, antiwar, the Poor People’s Campaign, opposition to the Vietnam War.

Dr. King could be indulged by presidents in hopes of re-absorbing him into the mainstream, but he was a marked man post-Washington March. Here philosophy and practice merge, and because of that an urge to discredit, to punish, to extirpate, coming from the White House and organized forces of repression; he had to be silenced. To approach emancipation from the perspective of humankind introduced a class analysis into his religious/worldly praxis: therefore the Poor People’s Campaign, meant to affect blacks and whites alike, both impoverished in the lower rungs of the social scale, a framework the product of none-other than capitalism. A democratization of the social system followed as night the day, having God’s sanction. Similarly, non-violence was not an exotic doctrine flowing from the Ganges (Thoreau could take it directly from the waters of Walden Pond), confined only to a personal code of living and of conduct. Non-violence had explicit anti-militaristic significance and connotations. Get out of Vietnam! Halt covert actions, stop supporting death squads, cease holding nuclear weapons over the world’s head as the ultimate means of intimidation. Dr. King was a dangerous man, a subversive best kept constantly under watch.

Subversive? He a church man, subversive? Because civil rights translated into successively enlarged human rights, fundamental social/structural/ideological change alone could adequately address American reality. Keep your eye on the prize(s), here, voter registration and the desegregation of public facilities, became an absolute flooring for pushing on—on to the end of poverty, the democratization of class structure, the categorical transformation of foreign policy, away from militarism, imperialism, war, and toward a pacific international system which would be founded on mutual trust and mutual respect. All of this he believed was necessary for the realization of freedom in daily life. There was, for Dr. King, no separation between theory and practice, practice becoming the living out of the theory, which is to say, the achievement of economic welfare was the fruition of moral philosophy. Nor could such welfare be achieved so long as America engaged in global posturing. The gospel message, the Dream itself in distilled form in his powerful imagination, was the simultaneous abolition of poverty and war, out of which a LIBERATED humankind would emerge in a society of equity and justice for all.

Listen closely. I was fortunate to be present. This is just the opening: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” The word “Now” becomes the springboard of spiraling explosive meaning. The dynamic is being released; his more explicit anti-poverty/anti-war stand lies over the horizon yet, but the black emancipation to be achieved is already in the cards.


Race, for Dr. King, had to be rooted in what I am terming “the totality of context,” in which pursuing civil rights, in passage to becoming human rights, had meaning only when society’s oppressive institutions and conditions had been dismantled, replaced by the democratization of the one, the equalitarianism of the other. Presently, I believe, the civil rights movement is no longer the progressive historical vehicle that Dr. King envisioned. Why? Because it has isolated itself from the Great Issues that go beyond its own limited vision, specifically, the discussion and criticism of foreign policy, intervention, torture, war preparation. It has become putty in Obama’s hands, something Dr. King would never have permitted. For what the struggle over civil rights represents is the struggle over the nature of government itself, the co-partner and enabler of advanced capitalism, or the servant of the people; the means and mechanism for mounting wars of commercial penetration and global hegemony, or the guardian of human rights via among other thing an equitable distribution of wealth, preservation of civil liberties, and provider of full-employment policies and a vital social safety net; a government, antiwar and antipoverty in inspiration and at its very roots. Hence, a totality of context, consistent across the boards, where the gains of one are not at the expense of injury to another. America cannot act with impunity in the world, and expect a polity of justice at home—the scathing contradiction presently upon us (except that we neither see it nor have justice).

Civil rights, like anti-war, movements in America are a profound disappointment, their horizons now shrunken from that of their former selves—perhaps Dr. King’s death, and none really to take his place, one small factor in accounting for this. Of course, societal pressures have been building to that end for decades, the wars themselves important in eliciting feelings of patriotism, the lack of transparency in government, enabling the CIA and the NSA to run stark naked undetected in their combined onslaught on American freedom, another factor. Here the itemization of factors is too numerous to mention, so close are we to the advent of fascism, so far away are we to offering effective resistance. For Dr. King, non-violence came to signify straight-out opposition to what in his time and now through the present is an international posture of world bully, itself always having detrimental effect on the social safety net, and hence the class system. For him, voting rights was not enough, non-violence (narrowly conceived), not enough, ah, anti-militarism, now we’re getting somewhere, but there still has to be more. As my myriad stock-market reports (kidding, of course) say, this page is left intentionally blank. It is for our generation to work out the answers—and certainly not for me to dictate or even suggest a paradigm for going forward. But one can say, black emancipation requires the emancipation of all, a universality of humankind, a capacious world tent, in which the variegated scene of religions, political economies, cultures, however human beings create structures to enhance their dignity and well-being, be guided by tolerance for each other and a spirit of mutual respect.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

More articles by:

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”