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.

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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.

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