Martin Luther King would be tearing us a new one
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, headlined by Martin Luther King Jr., where he delivered one of the best speeches in American history, the “I Have a Dream” speech. While last weekend saw a march and various speeches and remembrances, I barely took notice of them. For one, there’s nothing special about it having occurred 50 years ago versus 49 years ago.
But the thing that nagged at the back of my mind was the same thing that bothers me when King is celebrated in January. We worship a caricature of Dr. King. Martin Luther King, in the contemporary American psyche, is our neutered, great black racial healer. He’s the “content of our character,” inoffensive, kumbaya figure that seeks peace and love.
While he may be that on one level, the truth is more complicated. At the end of his life, Martin Luther King was more Spike Lee than Will Smith. He told uncomfortable truths. He spoke truth to power. While he’s revered today, in 1967, he didn’t even make Gallup’s top ten list of most admired Americans. Segregationist George Wallace was on the list. In 1966, Gallup conducted an approval ratings poll on Martin Luther King. King was viewed positively by 32 percent and negatively by 63 percent.
Why? Martin Luther King started talking about economic justice. In a 1967 interview with Sander Vanocur, King said in many ways his dream had “turned into a nightmare.” It wasn’t good enough to allow people to sit at lunch counters if they couldn’t afford lunch. His message became less about race and more about class. He also started criticizing American foreign policy and specifically, the Vietnam War. It was King who called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Don’t misunderstand. The March on Washington was a galvanizing moment for this nation. It opened eyes and ears and softened hearts while challenging America to live up to its creed. It led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and helped put us on the path to a more perfect union.
But amidst the celebration and remembrances of that iconic moment, I can’t help but think about what King would say to America today. It’s always a risk to put words in a dead man’s mouth. King’s words have often been twisted and misconstrued by friends and foes alike. But looking at the interviews and speeches Martin Luther King gave on poverty, social justice and war towards the end of his life, it’s not hard to imagine that King would be attacking Wall Street and corporate greed like Jesus in the temple with the moneychangers. King would be opposed to our endless drone wars, the continued occupation of Afghanistan and military involvement in Syria. And being the victim of the FBI’s COINTELPRO spying, he would be blasting the NSA’s spy program.
And obviously, that would mean that an 84-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. would be critical of the first African-American president.
That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but does anyone believe King would remain silent in the face of endless war, given his stance on Vietnam? Would King be quiet about NSA spying when he lived with the federal government spying on him, bugging him, and trying to blackmail him? Would he remain silent in an America where the rich grow richer, the middle class shrinks and the poor are not even a part of the conversation? When the poor are mentioned, they’re treated like freeloading bums.
There would be no milquetoast speeches or polite remembrances of battles of the past. If King were alive, he might be using a cane or a walker but he’d still be marching. He’d still be marching.