Dr. King’s Legacy Requires Activism Not Pacifism

Today, April 4, 2008 is the 40th Anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a day to reflect on King’s largely unfinished work for justice and equality. I want to speculate about what King would say and do about today’s issues had he not been assassinated in 1968. King would still be fighting against racism, poverty and war. In particular, he would be leading the criticism of the United States – not just for our involvement in Iraq but for the whole way in which corporations have taken over the global economy.


In fact, his patience would have likely worn thin by now with the Bush administration. There would have been a lot more civil disobedience and protest if her had lived. I also believe that the War on Drugs would have been stopped and there would be far fewer prisoners. I also want to stress how King’s comments during the last year of his life were much more radical and anti-American than the sanitized picture the establishment has created of a passive dreamer. He was an activist and community organizer who never stopped fighting for the poor and powerless (both groups have increased dramatically in past decade.

Martin Luther King’s assassination led to riots in more than 100 US cities. James Earl Ray was convicted of his murder and sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died two weeks after the 30th anniversary of the assassination. The murder has drawn almost as many conspiracy theories as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Some name the Memphis police, the FBI and the Mafia. A federal investigation in 1977–1978 concluded that although “there is a likelihood” that Ray did not act alone in planning the assassination, he alone pulled the trigger. Ray maintained his innocence until he died, spinning a series of often contradictory conspiracy theories. The main point is that the US racist establishment killed Dr. King for his opposition to the Viet Nam war and promotion of racial integration.


We now view Dr. King as a hero and role model. There are some 650 streets in the United States bearing the name Martin Luther King, and the number is growing. Most people learn in school that King was a man who preached love and nonviolence. In truth, Dr. King’s political ideas were far more radical than American textbooks let on. In the last year of his life, King spoke, fought, and organized for the billions of dollars needed to solve the economic problems of African Americans. It was this orientation that brought him to Memphis, where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – 40 years ago. I will outline much of his later thinking in this post.

As of now, King’s message has been watered down. It’s been watered down as a commodity. Commercials and news accounts talk about his dream, but they’re neglecting the rest of his speech. He actually spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967 – after which President Johnson refused to ever speak to him again. Many of his comments from his last year are more radical and inflammatory than anything we heard from Rev. Wright who clearly is a student of Kings. Compare the quotes listed later with those on the anti-Obama video that keeps being shown.


If Martin Luther King were alive today he would be fighting for immigrant rights. The struggle to defend immigrant workers is a struggle against racism. And I think that we need to unite all the races in order to overcome all the problems that we have today. Martin Luther King talked about the war, against the war. In fact, he went to Memphis to fight for sanitation workers in Memphis. We’ve got to continue and expand that legacy. King’s emphasis on non-violent protest and civil disobedience has shaped how people around the world express dissent. King’s greatest legacy is that he still inspires people. His example gives them the courage to stand up for what they believe in — no matter what the issue, and the hope to believe that they can overcome great obstacles.

I was fortunate a few years ago to spend an entire day at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. I am sure glad I went there instead of Graceland!! One of the key lessons for me was how much young white students from up north were involved in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Much of what was learned during “Freedom Summer” of 1964 became manifest during the anti-war and environmental movements later in the decade. For the most detailed and latest information you can visit the tribute at Positive Universe.


CBS aired a story about Dr. King that highlights some key point. This is an excerpt from Giles: Remembering Dr. King from March 30, 2008.

Martin Luther King was only 39 years old when he died, but seemed so much older. Or is it that most 39-year-olds these days are self-involved slackers? He packed so much into his life it’s embarrassing. There he was, preaching, planning, writing, marching, spending his 20s and 30s changing this country, while I spent my 20s and 30s paying off college loans and looking for acting work.

He was a legend, but he was also a man. A guy who saved things – his report card from theology school (he got a “C” in public speaking!); the bank deposit slip from his Nobel Prize money; the telegram inviting him to President Kennedy’s funeral. His speeches: typewritten with handwritten corrections. He was a reader. A thinker. A man of change. And he’s gone. But his work must live on.


Opposition to the Vietnam War, 1967 (Adapted from Wikipedia)

Starting in 1965, King began to express doubts about the United States’ role in the Vietnam War. In an April 4, 1967 appearance at the New York City Riverside Church — exactly one year before his death — King delivered Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. In the speech he spoke strongly against the U.S.’s role in the war, insisting that the U.S. was in Vietnam “to occupy it as an American colony” and calling the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” But he also argued that the country needed larger and broader moral changes:

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” …

The speech was a reflection of King’s evolving political advocacy in his later years, sparked in part by his affiliation with and training at the progressive Highlander Research and Education Center. King began to speak of the need for fundamental changes in the political and economic life of the nation. Toward the end of his life, King more frequently expressed his opposition to the war and his desire to see a redistribution of resources to correct racial and economic injustice. Though his public language was guarded, so as to avoid being linked to communism by his political enemies, in private he sometimes spoke of his support for democratic socialism:

“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry… Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong… with capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”


Poor People’s Campaign, 1968 (Adapted from Wikipedia)
In 1968, King and the SCLC organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address issues of economic justice. However, according to the article “Coalition Building and Mobilization Against Poverty”, King and SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign was not supported by the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Bayard Rustin. Their opposition incorporated arguments that the goals of Poor People Campaign were too broad, the demands unrealizable, and thought these campaigns would accelerate the backlash and repression on the poor and the black.

The campaign culminated in a march on Washington, D.C. demanding economic aid to the poorest communities of the United States. He crisscrossed the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would descend on Washington — engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be — until Congress enacted a poor people’s bill of rights. Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.”

King’s economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America’s cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its “hostility to the poor” — appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.” His vision was for change that was more revolutionary than mere reform: he cited systematic flaws of racism, poverty, militarism and materialism, and that “reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”


The following is an excerpt from an interview that Dr. King gave with Playboy magazine in January of 1965 (at a time when he was still considered a moderate and pacifist.)

PLAYBOY: Whom do you mean by “the establishment”?

MARTIN LUTHER KING: I mean the white leadership — which I hold as responsible as anyone for the riots, for not removing the conditions that cause them. The deep frustration, the seething desperation of the Negro today is a product of slum housing, chronic poverty, woefully inadequate education and substandard schools. The Negro is trapped in a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign, caught in a vicious socioeconomic vise. And he is ostracized as is no other minority group in America by the evil of oppressive and constricting prejudice based solely upon his color. A righteous man has no alternative but to resist such an evil system. If he does not have the courage to resist nonviolently, then he runs the risk of a violent emotional explosion. As much as I deplore violence, there is one evil that is worse than violence, and that’s cowardice.

It is still my basic article of faith that social justice can be achieved and democracy advanced only to the degree that there is firm adherence to nonviolent action and resistance in the pursuit of social justice. But America will be faced with the ever-present threat of violence, rioting and senseless crime as long as Negroes by the hundreds of thousands are packed into malodorous, rat-plagued ghettos; as long as Negroes remain smothered by poverty in the midst of an affluent society; as long as Negroes are made to feel like exiles in their own land; as long as Negroes continue to be dehumanized; as long as Negroes see their freedom endlessly delayed and diminished by the head winds of tokenism and small handouts from the white power structure. No nation can suffer any greater tragedy than to cause millions of its citizens to feel that they have no stake in their own society.

Understand that I am trying only to explain the reasons for violence and the threat of violence. Let me say again that by no means and under no circumstance do I condone outbreaks of looting and lawlessness. I feel that every responsible Negro leader must point out, with all possible vigor, that anyone who perpetrates and participates in a riot is immoral as well as impractical — that the use of immoral means will not achieve the moral end of racial justice. …


PLAYBOY: How do you propose to go about it?

MARTIN LUTHER KING: Before we can make any progress, we must avoid retrogression — by doing everything in our power to avert further racial violence. To this end, there are three immediate steps that I would recommend. Firstly, it is mandatory that people of good will across America, particularly those who are in positions to wield influence and power, conduct honest, soul-searching analyses and evaluations of the environmental causes that spawn riots. All major industrial and ghetto areas should establish serious biracial discussions of community problems, and of ways to begin solving them. Instead of ambulance service, municipal leaders need to provide preventive medicine.

Secondly, these communities should make serious efforts to provide work and training for unemployed youth, through job-and-training programs such as the HARYOU-ACT program in New York City. Thirdly, all cities concerned should make first-priority efforts to provide immediate quality education for Negro youth — instead of conducting studies for the next five years. Young boys and girls now in the ghettos must be enabled to feel that they count, that somebody cares about them; they must be able to feel hope. And on a longer-range basis, the physical ghetto itself must be eliminated, because these are the environmental conditions that germinate riots. It is both socially and morally suicidal to continue a pattern of deploring effects while failing to come to grips with the causes. Ultimately, law and order will be maintained only when justice and dignity are accorded impartially to all.


Here is an account of activities right after King’s assassination as recalled by the famous musician and black activist James Brown in his book “The Godfather of Soul” by James Brown with Bruce Tucker (Thunder`s Mouth Press, 1986)

I had a big show scheduled for the Boston Garden on Friday, April 5. Boston had always been a good town for me—I`d had ten thousand at the Garden the time before—and I was feeling kind of changed after that first trip to Africa and looking forward to the show. I spent Wednesday trying to get my sleep straightened out. Thursday, too, until I heard the news later that day: They had killed Dr. King in Memphis during a garbage strike.

When a great man is killed for no reason and he happens to be your friend, you feel the loss twice over. In Martin`s case, it was all one feeling because with him it was like the nation had lost its greatest friend. That`s what Martin was–America`s best friend. And a lot of Americans didn`t even realize it. … Like a lot of people, I knew it was going to bring a great deal of violence, burning, and death, and I knew everybody would lose by it. I didn`t want it to happen, and I knew Martin wouldn`t want it to happen. … there was one thing I could do. I called my radio stations in Knoxville and Baltimore and had them put me on the air live. I urged the people to stay calm, to honor Dr. King by being peaceful. Then I made more taped messages like that and instructed the station managers to play them until the trouble passed. I believe they had some effect because those two cities had less trouble than most.


Quotes From Martin Luther King (Various sources)


  • A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.
  • A right delayed is a right denied.
  • Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.
  • Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
  • Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
  • Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.
  • Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.
  • The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.
  • The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.
  • The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be… The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
  • When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.
  • We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
  • Even when pressed by the ­demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.

One thing is for sure – Dr. King would also strongly support Barack Obama for president. He would not stand idly by as the Clinton dynasty tries to steal the election from the people. He would be sure that protesters marched outside Billary’s campaign presentations. Sure he is aware of the televised pix of Bill Clinton sleeping as King’s son paid tribute to his fallen father.


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