Dr. King rolls in his grave. Each of the intersecting evils he decried has grown only worse since he was taken from us.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King day, we should not only remember his forgotten legacy, but also its particular poignance at this moment in history.
Our nation has produced few heroes in the same league as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His unique contributions to our nation — by holding us “true to what we said on paper” — are reflected in the monument in his honor erected in Washington DC, the designation of a national holiday, and the effective beautification of his voice as an iconic representation of our nation’s most visionary ideals.
But we can’t pretend that his work was finished, or that the need to remember his legacy is simply an object of historical commemoration. The issues with which Dr. King struggled — both those that motivated him, and those that emerged to impede his progress — remain very much alive today.
The legacy he chose to leave us: intersectional analysis
King was driven by what we today describe as intersectionality. He explicitly addressed the intersecting evils of militarism, capitalism, and racism.
In the decades since his warnings, we have grappled with none of those issues, each of which has grown only increasingly metastatic since King’s era. And their intersections are even worse than the sum of their parts.
Nowhere in the world are those intersections more vividly demonstrated than Brazil, where a right wing resource extraction coup put in place a brutal dictator currently waging an ecocide with global consequences.
It may seem convenient to blame the coup on Brazilian politics, but a mountain of circumstantial evidence points towards the likely support of the CIA. We can’t pin the tail on the institutional donkey, because — as in King’s era — the executive branch and military-industrial complex keep their worst crimes secret.
That’s no hyperbole. In King’s time, Daniel Ellsberg emerged as “the most dangerous man in America” (as described by President Nixon before Ellsberg helped bring him down) because he offered information revealing the corruption of our war machine.
Today, many whistleblowers languish in prison — or in exile — because they dared to come forward to reveal information that We the People need to hear.
One reason Congress is so deferential to executive crimes is because Nancy Pelosi keeps Congress in the dark, by denying staff with security clearance to nearly every member of the House. That means that CIA torture, drug running, corporate coups to seize fossil fuels, and outright corruption go unchallenged — not because the White House and executive branch hide evidence of their criminal trails, but because a Democrat-controlled Congress enables their predictable (and otherwise untenable) efforts.
NSA surveillance went on for a decade before Snowden forced policymakers to finally confront (before ultimately again ignoring) the concerns that I and other advocates had raised for years. Who knows what crimes continue, or reflect the Agency’s sordid innovations?
No one at the CIA has ever been held accountable for anything. An unapologetic torturer openly leads the Agency, and was outrageously confirmed by Congress!
Our supposed commitments to human rights have been reduced to history lessons.
Dr. King rolls in his grave.
The legacy he was forced to leave us: state suppression of dissent
His memory is also relevant because of the government witch hunt that tried to drive him to his grave before his time. A documented plot that amounts to a foiled assassination attempt, the FBI attacked not only the rights of one individual, but given the esteem in which we now hold him, those of our entire country.
As with the issues that King chose to raise, we have grappled with none of those that his life forced us to consider.
In his era, a vicious government crackdown successfully sought the “neutralization” of social movements pursuing civil rights, environmental goals, peace in Vietnam, black power, indigenous rights, and gender equality. Groups around the country were infiltrated, leaders were pitted against each other or outright assassinated, and the American public did not hear the truth for decades.
The Counter-Intelligence Programs (CO-INTEL-PRO) shredded the rights of Americans and reduced our democracy to a mockery for nearly half a century.
Today, the FBI demonizes us, and others in the movement for black lives, as “black identity extremists.” By designating classes of suspects based on association, and their ideological commitment to due process principles, contemporary domestic intelligence practices effectively replicate the assault on the First Amendment of the FBI.
The state’s designation of thought-related crimes is not limited to the Movement for Black Lives. Activists who have taken action to resist the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure — such as pipelines — have also faced vicious and unrelenting state pressure, including human rights abuses by private contractors. Those mobilizing to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and defend indigenous rights were threatened by attack dogs and doused with firehoses in the dead of winter.
When constitutionally protected protests greeted President Trump’s inauguration, the Justice Department sought to identify every person who had ever visited the website promoting the protests, while viciously prosecuting many who participated.
The dangers of thought crimes
The way our law enforcement authorities evaluate thought crimes also reflects a dangerous discrimination. Attacks by right-wing extremists, often dismissed as “mass shootings” have grown disturbingly routine. The Bureau seems to turn a blind eye to this well-documented and pervasive white nationalism, despite longstanding warnings.
If ideological profiling poses one set of threats to dissent and democracy, mass surveillance presents another. In some respects, they are each the inverse of the other: ideological profiling is (discriminatorily) targeted, while the surveillance regime collects information from more or less all of us (indiscriminately) en masse.
But the threat they pose to dissent is the same.
Whether due to the ideological or racial profiling to which vulnerable individuals know they are subject, or the mass surveillance practices that would inhibit a well-informed critic, both vectors of state monitoring chill dissent, association, and speech.
But beyond the rights of individuals to pursue those rights, state surveillance also offends and undermines the value that those rights, in turn, were constructed to protect: our democracy.
What Dr. King’s legacy means today
Worse yet, both the attack on ideology and mass surveillance enjoy the support of most corporate Democrats in Washington. They fail to appreciate the value of the civil liberties that keep us safe from our government, especially in times of crisis like these.
Dr. King’s legacy is not simply an abstract excuse for a day off of work. It is an invitation to remember his principles. They once inspired our civilization.
He raised issues of intersectional justice, recognizing how wars for profit, domestic poverty, and racial marginalization are all inextricably connected. And his success was met with an authoritarian attack on dissent and democracy.
He faced a tougher road than we do. And the justice that he sought remained elusive during his life.
Yet he promised that “We shall overcome,” and that “while the arc of the moral universe may be long, it bends towards justice.”
We today will determine his accuracy. We can either celebrate today’s holiday as a day home from work, or instead grow inspired by it to continue the unfinished work that Dr. King began.