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The MLK they didn't teach you

January 21, 2005 | Page 10

LEE SUSTAR looks at the real legacy of Martin Luther King.

CHANCES ARE you didn't hear this during the official Martin Luther King Day commemorations this week:

"They must see Americans as strange liberators," King said in a speech about the Vietnam War in April 1967. "They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least 20 casualties from American firepower for one 'Vietcong'-inflicted injury.

"So far, we may have killed a million of them--mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

"What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?"

King's speech, delivered at Riverside Church in New York City, could easily apply to the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the destruction of Falluja today. But this speech doesn't fit with the image of King that has been sanitized for school textbooks and hijacked by Corporate America--so it's ignored.

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IN FACT, the effort to sever King's antiwar positions from his leadership in the civil rights movement began well before his assassination in 1968. The Washington Post denounced King's Riverside Church speech as containing "sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy" and concluded that King "has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people."

A Life magazine editorial railed that King "goes beyond his personal right to dissent when he connects progress and civil rights here with a proposal that amounts to abject surrender in Vietnam, and suggests that youths become conscientious objectors rather than serve."

Actually, King was stating what growing numbers of movement activists had argued for years--that the struggle for civil rights and social justice at home was inseparable from the struggle against the Vietnam War abroad. This was true not only because the war budget drained billions away from social programs, but because the U.S. could never bring "democracy" abroad while maintaining racism and poverty at home.

"[I]t became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home," he said in the Riverside Church speech. "It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.

"We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

"So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit.

"I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor."

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KING'S TURN to the left at the end of his life was long in coming--and, according to his critics among the Black Power militants, very late. It wasn't the result of an overnight conversion, but a decade of a complex and contradictory relationship with the civil rights movement that first made him a national figure in 1955 during the Montgomery bus boycott against segregated seating.

For years, King repeatedly assured the American public that he was no radical, but justified the struggle as reflecting mainstream U.S. political values. Civil rights, he said, "is...a moral issue...which may well determine the destiny of our nation in the ideological struggle with communism." He further stated, "We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust...By nonviolent resistance, the Negro can also enlist all men of good will in his struggle for equality."

King wasn't naïve, however. His strategy encompassed an inside-outside approach to the Democratic Party, challenging the Democrats' racist one-party states across the South, while using protests to put pressure on national Democratic leaders such as John F. Kennedy and his successor in the White House, Lyndon Johnson.

To that end, King endured constant death threats amid the bloody repression in the South and saw the inside of several jails--all while maintaining connections to the White House.

The massive 1963 March on Washington--and the assassination of Kennedy soon afterward--provided the political momentum to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which finally guaranteed the right of Blacks to vote almost a century after the end of the Civil War. The Civil Rights Act the following year outlawed segregation as well.

Yet the struggle continued--and grew more complex. The Northern Democrats who praised King's activism in the South became hostile when activists turned their attention to the problems of Black unemployment and poverty in Northern cities. King's efforts to fight ghetto housing and poverty in Chicago, for example, ran into bitter--and violent--racist opposition against efforts to desegregate housing. There were big protests, plenty of promises from politicians--but few results.

Young radicals in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee began to view King as yesterday's man as they looked toward the revolutionary ideas of the Black nationalist Malcolm X.

King emphatically rejected the popular slogan of "Black Power" as divisive--which garnered him even more criticism from militants and the left. The issue of civil rights had been superceded by issues facing the Black working class, North and South.

King, however, was himself moving to the left. He prevailed in getting his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to oppose the Vietnam War--and Lyndon Johnson cut his ties with King soon afterward.

King went on to formulate a broader effort to challenge the priorities of U.S. society. This inevitably meant challenging the Democratic Party, which controlled both Congress and the White House.

To that end, King launched the Poor People's Movement that aimed to camp outside the White House in 1968 to demand a massive increase in social spending as well as an end to the war in Vietnam. King, however, was killed by an assassin's bullet before the Poor People's Movement got off the ground. What's often forgotten is the fact that he was killed in Memphis, where he was supporting striking Black sanitation workers.

While it's impossible to predict what King's political evolution might have been, it's clear that he was drawing far more radical conclusions than are generally acknowledged. And the issues King raised at the end of his life still stand before us today.

"We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society," he told the SCLC convention in 1967. "There are 40 million poor people here. And one day, we must ask the question: 'Why are there 40 million poor people in America?' And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy."

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