In Memoriam, Dr. King: A Belated Tribute

I did not attend my university’s ceremonies commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. How could I? Michigan State was up to its neck in violating the record and spirit of everything Dr. King did and stood for, and yet today, January 17, it seeks, as does Barack Obama and the preponderance of national black leaders, to hide behind his image, falsifying it to satisfy current policies of war, reaction, corporate-financial usurpation of democratic principles, blaspheming his memory for the proverbial gold coin derived from feathering the nest of of the economic elite and its military cohort. I believe I have earned the right to criticize, not because I, and countless others, including Sen. Sanders, attended the March on Washington, but because I saw at first hand, looking directly into his eyes from six inches away, the fear of assassination, yet determination to plow on, that Dr. King carried as a burden in the last few years of his life.

In contrast, fast-forward several years, Clifton Wharton, MSU’s first black president, when I first joined the faculty, had recently completed a stint serving the Rockefeller Brothers’ interests in upper South America (a not-so-early indication of the counterrevolutionary role played by CIA-assisted NGOs and private foundations in American foreign policy), carrying forward the earlier work of John Hannah, who grossly assisted in the dirtiest of dirty policies, including torture, in Vietnam, and, in the protests against the war, here and on college campuses throughout the country in Spring of 1970, ringed the student union building, where faculty and students were planning the next stage of the Strike (to go into the inner city schools of Detroit and help out in any way possible), with black paddy wagons drawn from the local police forces and at midnight conducted mass arrests, including that of a pregnant woman, on the ground of violating the building’s closing hours, for an overnight stay in the Lansing jail. So much for freedom of expression, so much for committing the heinous crimes of taking our classes into the churches of the community so as not to miss assignments and volunteering for conducting tutorials in Detroit’s schools. Wharton persisted with a full-dress hearing days later, not unlike the general atmosphere of the school, where “patriotic” faculty denounced their colleagues (something I had not forgotten in 29 years as full professor, but par for the course wherever universities were complicit in US war planning, acts of prostitution in servicing corporate research needs, etc., and staffed by professors cum careerists and ideologues, often the same). From there he went on to head TIAA-CREF and have a major entertainment center on campus named after him.

Yet it is those in administrative posts today, black and white, and the faculty flunkies courting favor, who dare celebrate Dr. King today, individuals who, if they were of Dr. King’s generation, were contemptuous of his Poor People’s Campaign, and even more, his strong antiwar position. That is the problem: those who never earned their stripes in either the civil-rights or antiwar struggles, and their present-day inheritors of the heart-wrenching sacrifices he made to get them to where they are, Obama, above all, have simply cashed in, with utter cynicism, and betrayed their fellow blacks (where do we find even the semblance of a vital social safety net, the redistribution of wealth and power, the pursuit of genuine peace, even control over police brutality?) and social-justice aims of government. And not to appear prejudiced, blacks are only mirroring the nation’s mindset, still white defined, in which the standards raised by Dr. King are repudiating them in the act of honoring them, a systemic Janus-faced hypocrisy at the heart of the country’s psyche.

Eyeball-to-eyeball contact: Return to Spring 1965, the Selma March went off as planned. How could it not, with the star power in the first two rows, the international media coverage, the protection provided—none of the grittiness and danger that soon followed, when people went home and media attention turned elsewhere? Intuitively I stayed away (unlike the March on Washington two years before, which felt somehow different, a mass demonstration seeming to break new ground—although it, too, had its precedents on a smaller scale), yet when we heard that Rev. James Reeb, a Boston Unitarian minister, had been murdered on the streets of Selma (Reeb once officiated at the marriage of one of my students), I, then at Yale, organized an interracial group from Yale Divinity School, borrowed a car, and rushed down to provide reinforcements—and there the moving significance of Selma began for me. Shortly after arrival we were crowded in Brown’s Church, sitting in the rounded balcony, where Dr. King delivered a magnificent eulogy for Rev. Reeb. We were a true congregation, not an audience, and as we sang “We Shall Overcome,” hands on each others’ shoulders, swaying in alternate directions, the effect was indescribable. That night we held an all-night vigil from the church, facing a road in which Alabama state-trooper vehicles two abreast stretched practically as far as the eye could see, a symbolic confrontation, completely safe, typical of such observances, except for the display of force.

Later in the week, things changed. Dr. King and staff entered the Montgomery courthouse, a small group of followers gathered outside, to voice demands for better conditions and voting rights, as meanwhile a drenching rain had set in. We were miles away, in Selma. Word came of those outside being subject to severe beatings by the police; James Farmer, leader of CORE and a truly impressive figure, sent word out to me and others, get to Montgomery and reinforce the protest. Again, an interracial car, speeding there (as I describe in an earlier CP article, winding up in a cavalcade of state troopers also rushing to the scene, too busy for us—a steady 80 mph or more), and arriving, a scene of desolation: cracked skulls, bodies strewn everywhere in the little park, rain falling in sheets. After awhile, soaked to the skin, I made my way back to the car via a narrow alley, returning to the scene with only a gabardine coat on. It was there I saw Dr. King accompanied by Andrew Young, squeezing through the narrow space; they spotted me in the distance, and I realized, they may have thought I was an assassin coming toward them. We stopped, I did everything possible to reassure them by facial expression, mumbled words, posture, and as we passed so close as barely to get by, time had frozen in what seemed an eternity, as I conveyed my respect and, yes, love, and then we went our ways. The carnage was awful, part of the true story of Selma after the spotlights were turned off. Another part of the story, which we did not know at the moment, on our safe return to Selma that night, was that a car driven by Viola Liuzzo of Detroit, also with an interracial group, was shot at on that lonely highway, with Mrs. Liuzzo killed, murdered.

Our would-be King-legacy-inheritors, who have shown they don’t give a snap for the poor, of both races, and, as part of their self-promotion have enlisted in the cause of imperialism, to the killing and maiming largely of persons of color, these leaders, white and black alike, righteous to their tippy toes, are as I write solemnly extolling Dr. King’s virtues suitably sanitized to expunge from the record his answering the call of the Memphis sanitation workers and the underclass as a whole in America, his stance, though obviously unpopular at the time, of opposition to the war in Vietnam, as, if he were alive today, his opposition to all of America’s wars, interventions, regime changes, its confrontation with China and Russia, its manipulation of international trade arrangements both to further US market penetration and serve as pretext for military alliance systems, joint maneuvers, the march to hegemonic unilateral dominance in the world, a sordid record of achievement for which his rejection cost him his life. By all means, celebrate the man wholly disjointed from the ruling groups and power structure responsible for the problems and grievances he sought to rectify, a sainthood detached from the reality of his struggles, having the effect of cheapening both. The paradox of dishonoring the honored sums up the current practice, one exemplified in the Democratic debate tonight in which Clinton and Sanders are trying to outdo each other in courting the black vote.

As preparation for that event, Clinton has issued a proposal for improving the condition and status of blacks (the linkage supplied in today’s Guardian) entitled, “Growing Together: Hillary Clinton’s Vision for a New Economic Future for African-American Communities,” perhaps good as far as it goes, but problematic to a fault because far too generalized to be useful, even as a “vision,” and more important, so structurally situated completely within existing capitalism as to limit the possibility of securing the modest goals to be attained. The document notes that “more than half a century after Dr. King voiced his dream for a more equal America and civil rights activists marched and died for the right to vote, race still plays a role in determining who gets ahead in America—and who gets left behind.” Splendid, though nowhere is it mentioned that inequality goes beyond questions of voting rights and upward mobility, to the systemic attributes of advanced capitalism in America, which includes increasing wealth-concentration and industrial-financial consolidation, fueled not only by long-term trends of governmental corporate policies, but also a foreign-policy course of aggressively securing raw materials, markets, and investments—none of the foregoing alluded to, or remotely touched on, in her remediation of inequality in general, racial inequality in particular. In fact, she has supported, as senator and Secretary of State exactly those developments that make a mockery of her sudden interest in, and support of, improving the existing racial disparities in rights, wealth, and power.

Clinton presents her program in a vacuum: universalize educational opportunities, make college affordable, create good-paying jobs, preserve and strengthen Social Security, reform the criminal justice system, prevent gun violence, support small business—each and all (along with several more, like ending racial profiling and promoting better transportation to work) highly commendable, but even if achieved, neither improving the goal of racial democratization nor reducing the existence, privileges, and advantages of a demonstrable ruling group or class in command of consequential decision-making affecting war and peace abroad, civil liberties at home, and the myriad details in between, from environmental protection to labor organization. But why should we expect differently? Clinton is a good Democrat, nothing more or less, and thus pledged to a distorted, exaggerated view of national security, an allegiance to monopoly capital and specialized sectors like energy, pharmaceuticals, above all, defense. At best, blacks will be more comfortable in a Clintonian world, yet one that savages the rest of the world and those, domestically, who do not play the game, their comfort bringing them down to the same level of complicity with and enjoyment of the benefits derived from militarism and imperialism.

Dr. King saw through this ideological sham. Black self-improvement through the canons (and cannons) of a merciless violence-prone capitalism was, he believed, not worth the candle, a denigration of the potential racial ennoblement as preparation for a unified humankind. He did not have to be anti-capitalist per se; simply to be an advocate for non-violence was itself the sufficient answer to modern capitalism, which depends for its sustainment and performance on war and the preparation for war. By virtually all agreement, Clinton is a hawk, which invalidates her position on the whole gamut of her provisions for racial betterment: an opportunist who is tweaking the system for fairer mortgage rates which it should provide anyway, as meanwhile the ongoing processes of wealth creation continue unabated. And Sanders is not much better, whether on race or foreign policy. At least she took the trouble to issue a position paper, poor as it is, as he, glad-handing his way through the states, feigns democratic socialism, smiles, and leaves the structure of American imperialism intact, and the industries, banks, and firms standing behind it. If Dr. King would have had little use for Clinton, what use would Eugene Debs have had for Sanders?

We live in a world of imposters, the gradual melding into one of a position defined as American, with little to distinguish candidates of both parties, save on degrees of protestation as to their patriotism (Sanders keeps invoking veterans, not to say his historically compromised position on gun control, which he is now expected to modify) and obeisance to the property right. So be it, we get what we deserve. And America does not deserve to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday; it has, instead, defamed him in ways large and small, ratcheting up violence while eroding basic guarantees of the human person, in both cases to the sacrifice of elemental principles of social justice and individual as well as structural potentiality. We turn, then, briefly to the Democratic debate. [I have now watched the debate on television, and I see no reason to modify what I wrote above—if anything, the situation appears to be worse; except for O’Malley, on whom I won’t comment, both Clinton and Sanders inhabit a constricted political universe promising continuity in applying the permanent-war doctrine and, on domestic issues, pridefully affirming, rather than transcending, the Obama framework and record of corporatist liberalism.]

As predicted, the flimflam artistry remains in vogue. Clinton is Clinton. Like Cruz, petulant, with suppressed anger and a colossal sense of personal entitlement, she was hiding behind, or else draped herself around, Obama at every turn, at one point even boasting about hours spent in the Situation Room—as on an earlier occasion, just one of the (militarist) boys, a tried and true commander-in-chief in the making. But it was her strident, yet cunningly oblique, defense of Wall Street which most stood out, somehow converting Goldman Sachs into an eleemosynary institution whose high speakers’ fees, of which she was a handsome recipient, advanced the work of charity and reform. Clinton, the artful dodger, had a 3-point, 4-point, 5-point, etc., plan for everything, yet the plans themselves, especially the revision of health care, smell to me moldy and accommodative to America’s vested interests. Therefore, from a Left perspective, she was indeed vulnerable to attack from an authentic democratic socialist.

None, however, was in attendance, Sanders, to his everlasting shame, also seeking to wear the Obama mantle, particularly on foreign policy, sharing in the demonization of Russia and Putin (Clinton here almost outstripping the Republicans in her macho-brand of power politics, while Sanders dutifully went along with the tide), and in domestic policy, while off to a good start, failed to link Obama and the Democratic party itself sufficiently with Wall Street. Perhaps that is the point: one cannot remain a Democrat and expect to advocate for, much less realize, the democratization of the system of power, its industrial-financial-commercial components, and most fundamental, its militaristic character and purpose. I am all for Sanders’s swipe at Wall Street, but it is no more than that, a swipe, a sweeping blow with inadequate follow-up. He is, if not all smoke and mirrors, and certainly not the abominable fakir that Clinton is, nonetheless Sanders is completely out of his element, one foot in the progressive camp, the other on liberal terra firma (I, too, favor the restoration of Glass-Steagall, but even that, without more cogent criticism of the banking structure, is hardly an attack on finance capitalism), liberal terra firma signifying cosmetic changes to the distribution of wealth and power in America.

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