It’s my birthday today, and I’ve decided to celebrate by pounding out yet another missive on my much-abused keyboard. The fact that I’ve chalked up enough years to reach the doughy plateau of middle age is impressive in itself, since despite the caustic array of substances I’ve bombarded my body with during my 45-year tenure on this planet, I’m still here and I feel fine.
I share my birthday with three historically notable human beings: satirical French playwright Molière, who has been a hero of mine since I read The Misanthrope back in high school; former Egyptian strongman and pan-Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser; and, of course, Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is so auspicious that it is observed as a national holiday back home.
In the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. is considered something of a saint; he is spoken of in wistful, lofty tones. I imagine it’s similar to how South Africans view Mandela: all but the most venomous and recalcitrant of racists revere the man. In school we are taught to venerate MLK and most of us gladly oblige. This extends to politicians on all edges of the spectrum. They tear up and bow when they hear his name and then, of course, attempt to claim his legacy. Like Washington or Lincoln, MLK is one of those American figures who long ago ceased to be treated as an actual human being. He has been sculpted into a kind of immaculate statue–a historical demigod –and in the process his actual words, deeds, and objectives have become whitewashed.
MLK first came to national prominence in 1955 when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the seminal event of the Civil Rights Movement, but he is best known for his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March On Washington in 1963, which has been replayed and quoted ad nauseam. After all who couldn’t agree with the sentiments he makes in that speech? I too believe people people should be judged “not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.” I too would love to see a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls.” Wouldn’t we all? Who could be against that?
The “I Have a Dream” MLK is the version white Americans love to celebrate– the great, peaceful, bringer-together of the races that somehow makes us feel better about ourselves. We love the nonviolent, Christian MLK, with his references to Jesus and frequent admonishments to turn the other cheek. Why? Because this version is so safe. He never really threatens our privilege. We watch footage of those Southern cracker cops blasting marchers with water cannons and siccing German Shepherds on unarmed protesters and we pat ourselves on the back. Even though we’re white, we identify with the oppressed. Enough time has passed for history to clearly judge who was right and who was wrong, and we know which side of the line we’d like to be on. We would never root for those awful hick sheriffs. Those were other people, bad people, not us. If we were there we’d be marching right along side MLK, wouldn’t we?
As much as we love the cumbaya “We Shall Overcome” MLK, the later stage, more militant version of the man is too often ignored. This, of course, is no accident, since this MLK is much harder for many Americans to embrace, given that he loudly called out and challenged the crimes of our government in Vietnam while also condemning the engine behind such crimes: capitalism itself.
“Capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small-hearted men to become cold and conscienceless..”
“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”
Not only did he evolve into a firm anti-capitalist; he also argued for something more:
“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”
If the words out of the man’s mouth don’t convince you of his socialist heart, consider his actions. During his final days King was in the midst of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement to demand economic and human rights to poor Americans of all racial backgrounds. In fact,at the time of his assassination, he was in Memphis to lend his support to the Sanitation Workers’ Strike. The rights of workers and economic equality for all had become central to his identity by that point. His Christian beliefs, plus the lessons learned from his struggles throughout the whole of the Civil Rights Movement had led him to continue fighting as a democratic socialist. His stance on these issues could not be clearer: he threw himself into battle and was killed in the line of duty.
Conservatives in America reviled Martin Luther King Jr. while he lived. Some of these guys were Republicans and others were Democrats–mostly of the southern variety–but they hated the man and were very happy to see him murdered. Of course this all is forgotten in our modern day mad rush to canonize MLK. Everyone wants a piece of him and are twisting history to achieve their ends. Most nauseating is the execrable claim by many on the right that King was actually a Republican. This is complete garbage, of course, but that hasn’t stopped legions of bloviating talk radio troglodytes from repeating this lie to their gullible listeners, who then parrot it on comments threads throughout the sewers of the internet. In the walnut brain of the modern right-wing American, up is down and black is white: “Martin Luther King Jr. was actually a conservative!” They live in a Bizarro world of hate, paranoia, and misinformation. The tripe they consume and puke back up as fact is nothing short of insane.
MLK, however, was not insane. He saw the obscene injustice and inequality of America through the lens of both race and class, and his very reasonable reaction was to constantly fight against it, which he did to great effect. So let us remember him in full scope, as a two-fisted soldier fighting on behalf the weak and powerless. I am proud to share my birthday with such a man, though sadly here in Korea we don’t get the Monday off.