Today marks the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Both political parties will likely use the opportunity to try to appropriate the man for their own political agendas. Both liberals and conservatives will try to affiliate themselves with King, but neither are correct. However sanitized his public image is today, King's words are those of a brave and radical man who would be shunned by both of America’s mainstream political parties.
For example, in discussing the strange behavior of American troops supposedly sent to “liberate” Vietnam, King said, “We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops … We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?” Would this view be at home on the stage of any of the recent Republican primary debates? Does anyone think that the DNC will host any voices asking similar questions about America’s modern day imperialist adventures in the 2012 election?
King famously said of the Vietnamese, “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 … So far we may have killed a million of them — mostly children.” What would this man say of our current drone-friendly president, who has ordered the push-button murders of who-knows-how-many foreigners, many (if not most) of them civilians?
King would be firmly against people like GOP candidate Mitt Romney, the draft-dodging protestor of anti-war draft dodgers, when he speaks of the necessity of counseling young men of military age on “our nation's role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection.”
It would be easy to go on at length about King’s principled stand against U.S. imperialism (and not just in Vietnam), to provide passage after passage where he abjures the methods of his own government in favor of a policy of compassion and peace. But it is not only foreign policy where King disagrees with the American political consensus.
When it comes to domestic issues, and especially racial policy, King’s stances are in conflict with both the Republican Party – whose stance on racial oppression seems to vary between ‘it is a relic of the past’ and 'white people are the real victims' – and with the tepid liberal non-solution of “tolerance” presented by the Democrats. This is embodied perfectly by King in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail in the person of the “white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’"
King identified the source of racial oppression not as a flaw of bigotry in individual people but in a “system that still oppresses us.” His advice was to organize to obtain the power necessary to fight the entrenched and oppressive systems of racism and empire in this country.
When it came to economics, King committed the cardinal sin of questioning the benevolence and usefulness of the capitalist system, asking, "Why are there forty million poor people in America? … 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.” No pundit in America would ever question the idea of private property by asking, "Who owns the oil?" and “Who owns the iron ore?” and "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?"
Neither did King limit himself to these broader questions of inequality and exploitation. He proposed concrete policies to combat poverty and inequality, including the creation of a national guaranteed income program, which he estimated would cost $20 billion a year, and said “if our nation can spend $35 billion a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth.”
King was radical in the truest, most original sense of the word. He understood that problems of oppression cannot be confronted piecemeal but must be solved through a total transformation of society, something he expressed by saying "America, you must be born again!” While most of the political establishment rejects this idea, a radical social transformation is, and has been, the only real path to the country and the world King and people like him wished to live in. The words of Langston Hughes, quoted by King and many others, remain just as relevant today as when they were written:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons