This Black Life Must Matter! How Do We Remember Martin Luther King, Jr.?

In a 1965 sermon, King explained that the “majestic words” of the Declaration of Independence penned by Thomas Jefferson, that “all men are created equal,” were the cornerstone of the civil rights movement. On April 4, 1967, he delivered a speech in Riverside Church in Manhattan of a kind never heard before from any American political leader. It was addressed to the American people, not the government. It called upon us to open our eyes and our minds to evils inherent in the American capitalist hegemonic system. He denounced the United States government, stating “”I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos, without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world: my own government.” That speech is Beyond Vietnam, A Time to Break Silence.

Time magazine later called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post called it “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy” declaring that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.” The New York Times wrote an editorial entitled “Dr. King’s Error”, and even the NAACP objected to it. That’s what can be expected when a public figure tells the whole truth.

I’ve always seen the speech as the finest political speech in America since the Gettysburg Address. In its political acumen, it was in keeping with Karl Marx’s, “But if the designing of the future and the proclamation of ready-made solutions for all time is not our affair, then we realize all the more clearly what we have to accomplish in the present — I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.” (1844) King read a bit of Marx and Gandhi at Boston University while studying for his Ph.D. He was devoted to nonviolence, but he saw all the violence we were perpetrating throughout the world.

He began that speech in Riverside Church with the words, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” In it, he called out the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism”, asserting 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.” This must now be seen as judgment of our foreign policy and a plea for social justice. He traced America’s involvement in Southeast Asia since 1945, history about which Americans knew little, and decried the Vietnam War’s (aptly known in Vietnam as the American War) effect on the people of Southeast Asia as well as on our own soldiers, “taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem,” war that corrupted our nation.

His Legacy Is Being Hidden from Us

Since his assassination, his vision of social justice has been replaced in the media by the 1963 I Have A Dream speech in which he expressed a vision for a world where content of character matters more than skin color. In a 1965 sermon, King explained that the “majestic words” of the Declaration of Independence penned by Thomas Jefferson, that “all men are created equal,” were the cornerstone of the civil rights movement. But he devoted the final 18 months of his life to making his greater message explicit, one that promoted the solidarity of all mankind. Fifty-five years have passed now since he delivered that visionary speech at Riverside Church. Will the nation let another year pass without acknowledging his true legacy, his best thinking? Will we fail to see how only the principal victims of our militarism have changed, Afghanistan and Iraq now, Vietnam then? He said then that “the world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve,” and fifty-five years later it still does. In reminding us of what most matters, he was trying to save our soul, but our redemption will now require the admission of our mistakes and our responsibility for them.

But he devoted the final 18 months of his life to making his greater message explicit, one that promoted the solidarity of all mankind. Fifty-five years have passed now since he delivered that visionary speech at Riverside Church. Will the nation let another year pass without acknowledging his true legacy, his best thinking? Will we fail to see how only the principal victims of our militarism have changed, Afghanistan and Iraq now, Vietnam then? He said then that “the world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve,” and fifty-five years later it still does. In reminding us of what most matters, he was trying to save our soul, but our redemption will now require the admission of our mistakes and our responsibility for them.

Our nation is caught up in a maelstrom of polarized conflict over issues in racial justice, and Dr. King surely devoted his life to that. But he did so much more than that. In this era of the commodification of protest, I think it is our responsibility to ensure that his being made a saint of civil rights doesn’t obscure his devotion to America and to human rights. Let his true epitaph be known.

Let us recall one of the best-known messages he left us: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” We must no longer allow his greatest message to be silenced in our media, one that insisted that all lives matter. What I want America to realize today is how the legacy of Martin Luther King’s life and thinking is being hidden from us and expunged from our history. MLK’s teachings enraged those who have reason to hate truth, so they were not satisfied with his death. They sought the death of his thinking too.

Ensuring That His Life Matters

This year, we celebrate the 27th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Or, do we? It encourages people to make the day one of national service, a “day on, not a day off”. The most appropriate way to do that would be to honor and reinforce King’s protest of our immoral system of racial and economic injustice, and non-violently resist the American hegemonic warfare state. That takes such “service” out of being mere propaganda and into truth. Political truth and moral courage were what he lived and died for, so our service should honor his life by realizing the moral revolution of values he envisioned, and avoiding our spiritual death.

Like Socrates, King’s life was devoted to teaching the citizenry to think clearly, especially about the democracy that was first established in Socrates’s Athens and was at risk here on January 6th. He had a radical democratic vision committed to trying “to make America what it ought to be.” (Final Speech, Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968) King knew that democracy dies in darkness, so he shone great light wherever greed, prejudice, inequality and hypocrisy were to be found. I don’t know of a better epitaph for King’s life than to celebrate how he taught us all to be the kind of citizens a democracy needs to flourish, and a world needs to survive. That has to be seen now as his greater message to America.

After his death, it took Congress 15 years just to establish MLK Day in 1983. Sen. Jesse Helms criticized his opposition to the Vietnam War and accused him of espousing “action-oriented Marxism.” I’ve not heard a greater tribute to King than that.

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