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King’s revolutionary call to “get on the right side of world revolution” insists that we cannot separate the fight at home against white supremacy (and its legacy of slavery and Confederate generals) from resistance to US militarism wherever it is at work in the world today.
Challenging statues of Confederate generals could become a way to begin the “revolution” that Martin Luther King, Jr. called for in his speech at New York’s Riverside Church. The militarism of the Confederate generals, however, is best resisted today by criticizing it within King’s vision of a world resistance to US militarism.
2017 marks 50 years since King gave that address in 1967 on April 4. Maybe finally – after five decades and ten presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Donald Trump – U.S. peoples will begin a comprehensive challenge to their own militarized government, one that King named that day as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” King’s joining of resistance to U.S. white supremacy with resistance to U.S. wars abroad was a theme of his last year, between that Riverside Church speech and his assassination a year later to the very day, on April 4, 1968.
In his Riverside Church speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” King famously joined his Civil Rights movement to the movements against the Vietnam war. He called for U.S. unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal of its troops from Vietnam.
More comprehensively, though, King also challenged his hearers “to get on the right side of world revolution” – on the side of the world’s poor who were suffering and resisting European colonization and U.S. militarism worldwide.
This was a call to world solidarity with the “hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence,” as King put it. Although his view looked outward from the nation to the world, in that way King also discerned how US militarism routinely strengthens repressive white racism and deadly economic impoverishment at home.
As a high school student in Manhattan, Kansas, at Kansas State University, I heard and saw King during the last year of his life, when he was relentlessly emphasizing this need for US peoples to “get on the right side of world revolution.” I heard there the last speech he would give on a college campus before his assassination four months later. On that day, January 19, 1968, King argued,
I submit to you today that we spend $500,000 for killing a Vietcong in Vietnam, and yet we spend only $53 a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called war on poverty.”
Here, succinctly, King exposed the impact of U.S. war abroad upon the struggles of working poor in the U.S.
Today King might pose the question this way: How does US spending on wars and weapons to kill one alleged terrorist in Syria (or one in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea or Yemen) compare to what we spend to empower one impoverished person in the U.S? Such a query becomes all the more important as military spending is even higher now. Obama laid the basis for a $1.25 trillion nuclear weapons modernization plan for the next 30 years. Now, Trump has proposed a $54 billion increase in the military budget, and $1.4 billion more for corporate and military contractors. The problem today is not simply one of more federal funding for the military than for anti-poverty programs. More problematic is that US corporations, so dependent upon defense industry spending, now also take over aid programs for the poor, turning them into enterprises for the already rich instead of empowerment projects for the least well off. Thus in a militarist society, even increased funding for health care, housing and education – in the U.S. and abroad – often becomes a great swindle by the US corporate warrior elite.
The pervasiveness of US militarism means that those heeding King’s revolutionary call cannot rest with only standing against Trump’s “America First” militarism, as expressed toward Syria, North Korea, and Afghanistan. We must also oppose the liberal Democrats from whose imperial militarism Trumpian bombast has come. 60 percent of Democrats approved a military budget larger than Trump had requested. Almost all Democrats voted in the U.S. House and Senate for sanctions bills against Russia, Iran and North Korea, thereby keeping military tensions alive. Anti-Trump “liberal” media also affirm U.S generals and their militarism. In fact the media frenzy about Trump allows greater respectability to settle upon Iraq and Afghanistan veterans like Generals John Kelly and H.R. McMaster now in Trump’s White House, or upon General James Mattis, the current Secretary of defense. They become the “intelligent and reasonable men,” writes Newsweek, who “save the world from war – and stop the crazy.”
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is not so sure. Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2002 to 2005, Wilkerson reminds us that the military needs endless war. It professionalizes war, sometimes with patriotic bombast but usually with routine rationalizations. The generals’ wars and US militarism today, as in King’s day, guard a system of US global corporate interest, but now with an imperial structure of five to six global command structures, with U.S. generals as overseers, like imperial “proconsuls” for every continent and with more than 800 U.S. bases.
Let us grant that King would today join challenges to the Confederate statues commemorating Jim Crow and slavery of his own South’s history. But also, King clearly would have taken aim at the whole US militarist enterprise guarded and needed by US corporations and leaders today.
Just understanding slavery rightly should remind us that challenging the Confederate legacy is to challenge much more than the remembered racist brutality of the US South. The Confederates’ slavery was a system of world-wide commerce. Slavery birthed an “empire of cotton.” Financiers from New Orleans to New York to London and and on every continent knew how to calculate and to maximize investment in black labor. The U.S. South marketed cotton to the world, carefully administering torture to slave labor in its cotton fields – fields violently expropriated from indigenous peoples (Dunbar-Ortiz). Historian Edward Baptist meticulously documents in his 2016 book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, how the U.S. military violently cleared out indigenous lands and peoples to make way for slavery’s plantation infrastructure (68-9), and how then “the whipping machine that the enslavers built in the Southwestern slave labor camps enabled them to reshape the world (142).”
Less noted by Baptist is that even after slavery was formally abolished, blacks were re-subjugated in forms of labor such as convict-leasing, debt peonage, share-cropping and penitentiary work that to this day makes into “slaves of the state” our disproportionately black and brown prison population. After the North won the Civil War it kept U.S. troops in the South during “Reconstruction” only long enough to ensure that the South’s elites could no longer rival it economically. Recall the South had become “the richest class of white people in the U.S., and perhaps the world” (Baptist 143). After the South’s defeat was assured, an expanding British and US imperial system across the 1890s to the 1920s made the US in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois in his Black Reconstruction in America (BRA) “the cornerstone of that new imperialism which is subjecting the labor of yellow, brown and black peoples to the dictation of capitalism organized on a world basis” (631).
It was in this era of the 1890s to 1920s, as Reconstruction had ended and the USA’s imperialism expanded into Asia, the Middle East (West Asia), Africa and Latin America, that the Confederate statues rose-up in U.S. cities. By then many southern whites were falling in line with Northerners to join U.S. imperial wars for the nation’s economic interests. Du Bois observed in 1935, “Young southerners eagerly crowd West Point and Annapolis. The South is not interested in freedom for dark India. It has no sympathy with the oppressed of Africa or of Asia” (BRA, 704). As Du Bois also intoned in 1959, Blacks remained “color-caste serfs” because when the African slave trade ceased there arose a global “Colonial Imperialism.”
So now in Trump’s USA, challenging American Confederate statues means also to challenge and end U.S slavery’s vicious offspring, i.e. globally the U.S. military’s defense of the exploitation of world labor and poorer nations, and in the U.S. a militarization of police and prisons for black and brown peoples, as in today’s vicious and entrenched mass incarceration.
To take down the Confederate statues – and more comprehensively to pull white supremacy out by its now globally tangled roots – will require ending what King at Riverside Church termed U.S. efforts “to maintain social stability for our investments” by “counter-revolutionary actions of American forces.” Today, among the major scenes of such counter-revolutionary U.S. actions are Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Korean peninsula, Honduras and Colombia.
Really to begin King’s revolution would mean resisting also the U.S. generals and our entire nation’s social and political addiction to militarism, which permeates our policing and prison practices too. Our failure to mount this challenge will bring upon US peoples what former CIA analyst and historian Chalmers Johnson termed the “nemesis” of the world’s vengeance. Within the U.S. this will include also, Johnson writes, the already-ending U.S. republic, and the deeper entrenchment of more virulent white supremacy, authoritarian repression and economic impoverishment.
If there is a positive word here it emanates – as King knew well – from the truth that abroad and at home there are vigorous peoples’ movements to counter the imperial devastation of U.S. militarism. These movements persevere in spite of the U.S. military’s pervasive national and global reach. If there is any effective “resistance” on the US mainland it will not be motivated by just “Trump-hate” but by a comprehensive revulsion toward U.S. world military presence – to what the US Pentagon termed, during President Bill Clinton’s tenure, “full spectrum dominance.”
Surprising to some, it is precisely by building our world resistance to US militarism, that we also build justice, peace and democracy within the United States. King’s revolutionary call to “get on the right side of world revolution” insists that we cannot separate the fight at home against white supremacy (and its legacy of slavery and Confederate generals) from resistance to US militarism wherever it is at work in the world today.
Conventional wisdom would have one believe that it is insane to resist this, the mightiest of empires, the victor in the Cold War, the empire that devastated Iraq and all that. But what history really shows is that today’s empire is tomorrow’s ashes, that nothing lasts forever, that to not resist is to acquiesce in your own oppression. The greatest form of sanity that anyone can exercise is to resist that force that is trying to repress, oppress, and fight down the human spirit.