The Battle over Dr. King’s Message

From the Archive: Martin Luther King Day is a rare moment in American life when people reflect on the ideals that guided Dr. King’s life and led to his death. Thus, the struggle over his message is intense, pitting a bland conventional view against a radical call for profound change, said Brian J. Trautman in 2014.

By Brian J. Trautman (Originally published on Jan. 20, 2014)

Most Americans know Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of the Twentieth Century’s most revered voices for racial equality, the charismatic leader of the American Civil Rights movement, who gave the famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps they even know a thing or two about his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Birmingham Campaign.

This knowledge, by and large, derives from compulsory education and mainstream media. It is significantly less likely, however, that very many Americans know much at all, if anything, about King’s radical and controversial activities related to the issues of poverty and militarism, particularly the latter.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King highlighted three primary forms of violence, oppression and injustice in American society and across the world: poverty, racism and militarism. He referred to these as the “triple evils,” and considered them to be interrelated problems, existing in a vicious and intractable cycle, and standing as formidable barriers to achieving the Beloved Community, a brotherly society built upon and nurtured by love, nonviolence, peace and justice. King posited that when we resisted any one evil, we in turn weakened all evils, but that a measurable and lasting impact would require us to address all three.

King’s work to educate about and eradicate poverty was among his greatest passions. In “The Octopus of Poverty,” a statement appearing in The Mennonite in 1965, King observed, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.” Accordingly, “the time has come for an all-out world war against poverty.”

He strongly believed “the rich nations,” namely the United States, had a moral responsibility to care for its most vulnerable populations, noting that such “nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed.” King held, “ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation,” and maintained that “no individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.”

In late 1967, King announced the Poor People’s Campaign, an innovative effort designed to educate Americans on poverty issues and recruit both poor people and antipoverty activists for nonviolent social change. The priority of the project was to march on, and to occupy, if you will, Washington and to demand the Congress pass meaningful legislation to improve the social and economic status of the poor, through directed measures such as jobs, unemployment insurance, health care, decent homes, a fair minimum wage, and education.

Alas, Dr. King was assassinated only weeks before the actual march took place. And while the march went ahead as planned in May of 1968, it is thought that the lack of substantive change to result was due in large part to King’s absence. Still, a positive outcome of the initiative was a heightened public awareness of the nation’s growing poor population.

Perhaps most controversial were King’s positions on militarism and U.S. foreign policy. In “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” published in 1967, King said of war and its consequences: “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war- ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This way of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped, psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.” He cautioned that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

King’s most pointed speech against militarism was “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated. While King’s popularity among political allies and his inner circle was already beginning to wane because of his increasing public criticism of U.S. foreign policy and the growing war in Vietnam, the Beyond Vietnam speech was to become his most public dissent of the war to date, a war still largely unopposed by the majority.

To speak out in opposition to the war, he acknowledged, was personally necessitated, asserting, “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” With such a call to conscience, “a time comes when silence is betrayal.” And in the present day, argued King, “that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”

In the speech King calls the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and questions why money is being spent to wage war on foreign lands against foreign people while the war on poverty at home was being neglected, financially and otherwise. The major media of the time denounced the speech and King lost a great deal of support among his colleagues and the American people for it.

We owe it ourselves and our children and grandchildren, as well as our communities and nation to learn and teach about and take up King’s efforts focused not only on ending racism but all three of the evils against which he untiringly stood. Only then will we find ourselves closer to achieving King’s dream of the Beloved Community.

A small but important step toward this goal is to volunteer, as my family and I do, with a charitable and progressive cause on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, a national day of service.

Brian J. Trautman writes for PeaceVoice, is a military veteran, an instructor of peace studies at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and a peace activist. On Twitter @TrautBri.

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6 comments for “The Battle over Dr. King’s Message

  1. J'hon Doe II
    January 19, 2016 at 10:51 am

    In the speech King calls the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and questions why money is being spent to wage war on foreign lands against foreign people while the war on poverty at home was being neglected, financially and otherwise. The major media of the time denounced the speech and King lost a great deal of support among his colleagues and the American people for it.

    We owe it ourselves and our children and grandchildren, as well as our communities and nation to learn and teach about and take up King’s efforts focused not only on ending racism but all three of the evils against which he untiringly stood. Only then will we find ourselves closer to achieving King’s dream of the Beloved Community.

    “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
    .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Re72di5phM0

  2. J'hon Doe II
    January 19, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    How Australia’s Colonial History Helps Shape Its Racist Approach to Syria

    By Prof. Tim Anderson
    Global Research, January 19, 2016

    The key Australian founding myth was that no civilised people occupied this island-continent before British colonisation. From that piece of fiction the rights of more than 400 [groups of] indigenous peoples, their ownership of land and their very existence could be ignored. They could be treated as if they did not exist.

    Based on that central myth (eventually put into a legal doctrine called ‘terra nullius’) grew an ugly garden of racist practice: the ethnic-cleansing of Australia’s fertile river valleys; the colonisation and enslavement of the Pacific Islands peoples; the ‘White Australia Policy’; racialised immigration; engagement in a string of overseas imperial wars; and unique forms of physical and cultural genocide, which included concentration camps and stealing indigenous children from their families.

    That colonial mentality has wider implications, and taints Australian approaches to conflict in Syria and the Middle East, based as they often are on an underlying assumption that Syrian and other Middle Eastern people do not exist, except perhaps as victims or refugees. Many who knew very little about Syria moved rapidly to condemn and attack the Syria Government, or cheer on unknown ‘revolutionaries’, as urged by Washington. No need was seen to speak with, recognise or respect the representatives and institutions of the Syrian people. Talking with Syrians or visiting Syria was effectively banned.
    .

    ‘Racism’ is a term probably over-used, to include simple individual prejudice and ignorance. That trivialises the word. Yet all deep racial legacies stem from this colonial mentality, which denies the existence of other peoples while seeking to dominate, dispossess and displace them. This denial requires ideologies of systematic exclusion and dehumanisation.

    The recent Australian Government approach combines these racial assumptions with a long standing, subordinate collaboration with the big [U S] power. And it is a sad historical fact that collaborators often try too hard to impress. They can sound more extreme than their masters, anxious to demonstrate their loyalty yet also keen to prove to the world they have something other than sycophancy to contribute.

    Australia’s dependent foreign relations are conditioned by its racialist history. To back Washington’s ‘regime change’ line – from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya to Syria – Canberra has pretended that these other peoples do not exist, or at least that they have no voice, no organisation and no representatives.

    Even reading the Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian and Russian media on the Middle East is disdained, if not prohibited, because those nations are either not recognised or are somehow disqualified. This is deep racism, and the peculiar dilemma of a sub-imperial power with an unresolved colonial history. The narratives of others must be authorised and mediated by the great power.

    Ignorance has never been a barrier to colonial-style intervention.

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/how-australias-colonial-history-helps-shape-its-racist-approach-to-syria/5502249

  3. J'hon Doe II
    January 19, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    Based on that central myth (eventually put into a legal doctrine called ‘terra nullius’)
    .

    Terra nullius is derived from the 1095 papal bull, Terra Nullius, of Pope Urban II, which allowed Christian European states to claim land inhabited by non-Christians.

    • J'hon Doe II
      January 19, 2016 at 12:39 pm

      Terra nullius… .

      In 1937, Winston Churchill said of the Palestinians: “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

      That set the trend for the Israeli state’s attitude towards Palestinians.
      In 1969, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said, “Palestinians do not exist.”
      Her successor, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said, “What are Palestinians? When I came here [to Palestine] there were 250,000 non-Jews, mainly Arabs and Bedouins. It was desert, more than underdeveloped. Nothing.” Prime Minister Menachem Begin called Palestinians “two-legged beasts”.
      Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called them “grasshoppers” who could be crushed.

      This is the language of Heads of State, not the words of ordinary people.

  4. J'hon Doe II
    January 19, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    Terra nullius… .

    The Ghost of King Leopold II Still Haunts Us
    by Dr. Lawrence Brown
    MEDIA DIVERSIFIED
    APRIL 20, 2015

    Adam Hochschild [in his book, King Leopold’s Ghost] gives a historical accounting of [Belgian] King Leopold’s actions (4). The King made the Congo his own personal colony in 1885 and shortly thereafter began making a fortune by constructing rubber plantations that utilized the forced labor of the Congolese people to meet the demand for rubber at the time. To transport Leopold’s prized resource, the Congolese were conscripted to build [a] railroad network system.

    When Congolese workers did not meet their quotas under Leopold’s regime, Leopold’s military regiment—known as the Force Publique—would often cut off their hands. Women were frequently held hostage and raped (4). After 23 years of forced labor, plantation building, and rubber extraction, Leopold reluctantly turned over the Congo to the Belgian people in 1908 for a sum of 50 million francs (2).

    Hochschild estimates that as a result of Belgian colonization, approximately 10 million Congolese lost their lives (p. 233) due to four main factors: (a) murder; (b) starvation, exhaustion, and exposure; (c) disease; and (d) a plummeting birth rate.

    Hochschild’s book captures much of the terror of Leopold’s reign over the Congo and Belgium’s crimes against humanity, but words alone cannot convey the staggering scope of the traumas inflicted on the Congolese during this time. Two documentaries illustrate vividly the sheer level of society-altering violence and mass trauma the Belgians inflicted on the Congolese: one is entitled Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death (2004) and the other is named after the book King Leopold’s Ghost (2006).

    The specific health and dietary effects of colonization of the Congolese are outlined in one telling passage written by Charles Gréban de Saint-Germain, a magistrate at Stanley Falls (4). The magistrate described the dire health conditions of the Congolese in 1905:

    Disease powerfully ravages an exhausted population, and it’s to this cause, in my opinion, that we must attribute the unceasing growth of sleeping sickness in this region; along with porterage and the absence of food supplies, it will quickly decimate this country…. The villages for the most part have few people in them; many huts are in ruins; men, like women and children, are thin, weak, without life, very sick, stretched out inert, and above all there’s no food (p. 231).

    Over 50,000 porters were used per year to headload rubber from the interior to the coast by 1906; a railroad was under construction from 1899 through 1913, mostly with slave labor. The “[d]iversion of labor was so great that food was in short supply and had to be imported” and if laborers sickened they received no rations, having to scavenge in the forests (p. 8).

    It is important to note that the reason there was no food is because the Congolese were no longer allowed to grow their own food due to the insatiable demand for rubber. Hence, labor was diverted from the people growing their own food to collecting rubber for Leopold’s empire.

    There is a level of intentionality to King Leopold’s motives that cannot be mistaken. As he remarked sometime before the Berlin Conference of 1885: “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake” (2). A Congolese worker told Roger Casement—a British investigator and Irish nationalist—a different story about the actual impact of Leopold eating his cake (7):

    We had to go further and further into the forest to find the rubber vines, to go without food, and our women had to give up cultivating the fields and gardens. Then we starved. Wild beasts—the leopards—killed some of us when we were working away in the forest, and others got lost or died from exposure and starvation, and we begged the white man to leave us alone, saying we could get no more rubber, but the white men and their soldiers said: “Go! You are only beasts yourselves; you are nyama (meat).” We tried, always going further into the forest, and when we failed and our rubber was short, the soldiers came to our towns and killed us. Many were shot, some had their ears cut off: others were tied up with ropes around their necks and bodies and taken away (p. 64-65).

  5. J'hon Doe II
    January 21, 2016 at 10:02 am

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