My essay on Martin Luther King, Jr.

I'm pleased to report that a 2008 essay I wrote for Religion Dispatches on the occasion of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday has been published in a collection of short essays on the issues involved in his assassination and legacy. The book in question is The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. , edited by Noah Berlatsky and published by Greenhaven Press this year. It's part of their "Perspectives on Modern World History" series, which I think is geared towards high school students.


My short piece is entitled "King's dream remains unfulfilled." It argues that not only have MLK's most important teachings been neglected, but his memory is in practice often been co-opted in a reactionary manner that encourages complacency about America's continuing problems, both at home and abroad.

Speaking of MLK, listen to his breathtakingly courageous and prophetic speech against the dangers to America posed by militarism, "Beyond Vietnam." I think it's even more inspiring and topical than "Dream." Yet even though this speech was delivered almost 2 years later afterwards (and, eerily, exactly a year before his murder) and can therefore be said to be an even more accurate representation of his final worldview and mission, it has been completely written out of American culture. And, thus, so has the real Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who didn't just limit his activism and preaching to racial justice, however worthy that goal is in itself. To the contrary, he considered racial justice the first step in his mission to end injustice in (and by) America.


[Transcript of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Beyond Vietnam" speech.]

The format of the book is "opposing viewpoints." Thus, my contribution was placed in opposition to another essay. From, err, a U.S. Government website (title: "King's dream has transformed America."). So much for a career in public diplomacy!

Unfortunately, the table of contents – which I was not consulted on – mistakenly lists me as a "writer and an Islamic Studies scholar." I'm not sure which is more misleading in this case. Sadly, "lazy blogger, would-be gadfly and permanent student" probably wouldn't impress most readers, though there's no dishonor in those callings in my view.

P.S. To my great embarassment, this post was accidentally posted to Tikkun Daily initially. That dang Windows Live Writer is a little too easy to use. On the bright side, it could've been worse–at least it was on a topic that's probably of interest to many Tikkun Daily readers. It could've just easily been a goofy ode to Star Trek, Legos or H.P. Lovecraft.

  • TM Lutas

    I cannot support Dr. King’s idea that the US bore the greatest responsibility for ending the war in Vietnam. I also cannot support the idea that at the time the speech was written, the US was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”. His blindness to the threat of communism, its atheism, its dehumanizing aspects is an indictment of the seriousness of his christian ministry.
    From the future we have the advantage of knowing of the boat people, the killing fields, and the painful legacy of communism in SE Asia. So it is not entirely fair to beat Dr. King over the head with things he might not have been aware of. But before one pronounces on a conflict it really is unacceptable to have rose colored glasses on only for your country’s enemies. The reality of the communism-in-reality as opposed to the books of the theorists had long ago been available to anyone who wanted to see it. Dr. King obviously did not take advantage of that testimony.
    Dr. King seems to also have little understanding of the capitalist “soft kill” process and how the connectivity capitalists create also creates the baseline conditions for the progressive end to oppression.
    Dr. King says “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” but where is the individual responsibility of the beggar in a land where it was and still is possible to start from zero and build up a decent life? Is this christian minister so focused on institutional faults that he cannot see the edifice of spiritual poverty that is at the heart of so much of american poverty?
    Dr. King verges on the delusional when he says “communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated.” The reality that communism was a failed economic system that produced misery and poverty was already well established by the time of this speech. Its social promise was a shameful lie that was explicitly anti-christian (anti-muslim too for that matter).
    I view this speech the same way that I view Thomas Paine’s later works. Historically we take both figures and cherry pick their best out and hold it up as worthy of study but their later work is an embarrassment, unworthy of their potential.
    But you like this speech. I cannot see why you would buy in to so many discredited concepts.

    • Svend White

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, TM, and my apologies for taking so long to respond.
      The issues you raise would require a book rather than a comment to do them justice—and probably by someone other than myself—but I’ll take a quick stab at it.

      First, I’m not sure what “Communism” and “Capitalism” mean for these purposes. Many of these questions hinge on how one understands those terms, what what considers to be their essential characteristics and practices. And most societies represent blends of the two.

      I think King was right about our responsibility for that war. We started it—and under false pretenses (i.e., the mythical North Vietnamese attacks of the Gulf of Tonkin)–and prosecuted it, it has to be said, not infrequently with extreme brutality and disregard for international law. And why? Not because we were under attack but because we had anxieties about dominoes and felt appointed by God to dictate to a people on the other side of the planet whom they could choose as their leader and what kind of a political system they could set up for their newly independent society (4 decades years after Truman ignored Ho Chi Minh’s appeals for Vietnamese independence at the Treaty of Versailles).

      Well, what about mid-20th century Capitalism-in-reality, as King observed it firsthand? Without getting bogged down in all the standard Cold War triumphalism you’re engaging in here, another way to look at King’s positive statements about Communism which you find so distressing is that he was, quite understandably, disillusioned by the institutionalized racism and economic exploitation under the rubric of Capitalism that he saw going unchallenged throughout America in his day. Also, American Communists were among the earliest supporters of the Civil Rights movement; decades earlier, their organization and campaigns were racially integrated to a degree unheard in the rest of American society, whether in the north or south. On race relations they were quite simply pioneers, whatever one otherwise thinks of their world view. Perhaps that played a role for King.

      I don’t have any illusions about the material achievements of Communism as a political system–though I don’t entirely accept the way this issue is often framed on the Right–but that is not the only way to approach the question. One can view Communism not as blueprint, but as a theoretical framework for assessing the failings or innate propensities of Capitalism in practice. Or simply as a corrective to self-satisfaction and triumphalism by capitalist societies.

      I suspect that King would’ve disagreed with you regarding the root causes of American poverty. Sure, morality and personal choices play an important role, but so do institutionalized racism and generations of accumulated economic and social privilege. In a society like ours where opportunities and resources are in important respects distributed quite unevenly—by some measures, Europe has had more upward mobility than the US in recent years—to attribute poverty mainly to “spiritual poverty” seems at best unjustified by the evidence. At worst, it’s extremely unscientific, and uncomfortably reminiscent of some odious (and discredited) reactionary world views of the past (e.g., Social Darwinism).

      Yes, I do agree with much of what King said in that speech in the context of his time. But most of all I stand in awe of the amazing courage it took for him to take these incredibly politically unpopular stands. Here he was, already being targeted as a subversive by the government, and he decided to open a far more perilous, front—and one where he could hope for no support from other progressives (indeed, he was abandoned by some of his erstwhile Civil Rights allies after this speech, a fact they now gloss over)–seemingly simply out of conviction. This was him speaking truth to power and holistically applying his beliefs to the world around him.

      • TMLutas

        First of all, thank you for dropping a line when you responded. I’d not have checked this far back in the archives otherwise. That was gracious of you.

        I am concerned that you have difficulty defining communism and capitalism at this late date. If you can’t define communism and capitalism, there’s no grounds for you to discuss this, at all. This is very basic, almost a prerequisite.

        Separately, to say that we started the Vietnam war is just not historically accurate. We did arrange for an incident to butt our nose into the conflict but the conflict had been ongoing for quite some time prior to our involvement. This sort of formulation relies on a fiction that there were no anti-communist vietnamese or a separate fiction that their opinions didn’t matter. This is simply not true in the first case and odious in the second.

        I won’t challenge your characterization of the behavior of US troops in Vietnam other than to observe that when you are assigning responsibility and bringing in war conduct as a metric, you usually do a comparison between participants, not examine one participant against an external standard of war conduct. In other words, you’re playing dirty on that point.

        American communists supported civil rights in the same manner as they opposed, then supported, then opposed Hitler, disingenuously. Communism has no use for civil rights after seizing power and mouths support for it when out of power precisely to the extent that such activity will aid it in achieving power. Had King wanted to examine the record critically, he could have discerned this. Many of his generation did.

        Your idea of communism as a mere theoretical construct that is only useful to measure capitalism against is, well, reasonably novel. I don’t see how it can work. If it is not a system to be put in practice, why would capitalism’s failure to rise to the level of some completely impractical philosophical construct matter? Capitalism isn’t going to deliver hard rock candy mountain. So? Nothing else is either so the point of comparing it to a theoretical promise to deliver such is worthless.

        As for the causes of poverty, I would suggest that comparing black african immigrants who start with nothing to native US blacks as a real world metric to measure the actual effects of racism on poverty. In King’s time tremendous change had happened, to a great extent by him but certainly not only by him. Wilson’s segregation of federal workers was eventually reversed. The civil rights act of 1957 was a real accomplishment and the first civil rights act of the 20th century. A great deal of work remained for King to do and frankly remained undone at his tragic assassination. It’s just not accurate to say that nothing had been changing prior to King and the rest of the civil right’s movement’s activity in the 1960s.

        On social mobility you have something of a point regarding the US’ failings but communism eliminates social mobility by killing and jailing to the point of their being only one social class. That’s no solution. However, it is neither odious nor untrue that spiritual poverty, the lack of cultural and internal basic building blocks is a huge part of poverty today in the US. When one family is broken, it is a tragedy but the children at least are in a social matrix that provides indirect signalling as to how to form a family, how to live a normal, functional life. When an entire neighborhood is largely populated by people who do not marry, do not work, and have no functional structure that is sustainable, the problem is much worse. These problems afflict all races but blacks, unfortunately, are leaders in this family breakdown.

        The bottom line is that to speak truth to power, one must first be speaking the truth. And no endorsement of communism, however qualified, is ever speaking the truth.

        • Svend White

          Well, thank you taking the time in the first place, and it’s good to be kept on one’s toes.

          Well, I said I wasn’t clear about the definitions “for these purposes,” meaning those you were assuming in your commentary. It’s not unusual—especially in American politics, where dispassionate, evenhanded discussions of the matter are as frequent as sightings of Halley’s Comet—for biased and/or arbitrary definitions to be used to mask dubious arguments. As with so many complex and controversial topics (e.g., Islamic fundamentalism), tendentious terminology and unspoken assumptions often get in the way of real debate. I suspect you and I disagree on some underlying assumptions about the facts, as well.

          Actually, we were already actively–if not yet militarily–involved, for at least 2 decades prior to Tonkin. As Michael Gillen’s “Roots of Opposition: The Critical Response to U.S. Indochina Policy, 1945-1954” shows, we were financing and supporting the French in Indochina from the mid-1940s on—which is when the anti-war movement actually began, among Merchant Marine sailors objecting to American vessels transporting French troops to put down resistance to Colonialism in Indochina—to, of course, hold back Communism, so our involvement went way back.

          I don’t claim special expertise here, but my understanding is that Ngo Dinh Diem and his regime were deeply unpopular—hence his need to rig his own election—to say nothing of corrupt and repressive. No leader, no matter how vile or incompetent, is without any support—there are always constituencies that benefit from the status quo—but I don’t think there’s any question that Ho Chi Minh was much more popular than Diem, in the south as well as the north. In short, he was imposed and propped up by outsiders.

          Actually, I’m not talking about troops’ behavior—which I think is a very complex topic—I’m talking about decisions by our government and military brass to permit the use of unheard of violence and firepower, sometimes indiscriminately, against civilians.

          Political movements are unruly things. The Left had its share of extremists and fools who deceived themselves about (or hid) the reality of the USSR and other Communist regimes; for its part, the Right has a long, equally sordid history of support for awful things—death squads, dictatorship and the like—done in the name of fighting Communism. Hardliners on both sides have ample skeletons in the closet.

          Your quip about Communism and power illustrates why I’m leery of diving into discussions without first defining one’s terminology. One can make that argument, but it’s not the only one to be made. There isn’t objectively one “Communism,” and even if one accepts your assumption that there is (and that you’re representing it here), the fact remains that many, many Marxists (past or present) wouldn’t recognize your characterization of it. It’s a bit like scripture–you may think that core principles lead naturally to particular problems, but others would no doubt disagree (or, perhaps, de-emphasize or annul the part you find so threatening). So, I don’t think these questions are simple.

          As for your dismissal of the more enlightened racial platform of the American Communist Party, I think you’re ignoring the historical record. Even if they were in league with the Devil, on this particular point they were ahead of their time. Seems unlikely to me that this would’ve escaped the attention of MLK and others fighting Jim Crow.

          I don’t think my suggestion that some aspects of Communist theory can be useful for critical analysis despite being impossible/impractical to implement in practice is particularly novel. I believe in democracy, but I still find Austrian economist Hans Herman Hoppe’s critiques of democracy and advocacy of the virtues of monarchy very useful, as they highlight gaps and contradictions in contemporary democratic discourse that I probably otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. In any case, the analytical value of some aspects of Communist thought seems already to have been borne out in within the Social Sciences, especially Sociology. (And I’d argue that some of the most cogent, holistic analyses of contemporary global economic problems are coming from Marxian economists and political scientists, who have long analyzed many of the problems that have suddenly come to fore.)

          Then there’s the fact that people tend to embrace the enemy of their perceived enemy. Even if one agrees that for MLK to embrace Communism was wrong and ultimately self-defeating, from a psychological standpoint I don’t think you can entirely blame him or other African-Americans disillusioned by a political system that enshrined their second-class citizenship into law (while simultaneously patting itself on the back for being a beacon of civilization unto the world, of course) to consider Communism under their bleak circumstances. If you feel that you and your community are getting marginalized by one system, it makes sense that you might be open to considering its rival (and being highly skeptical of the mainstream critiques of that rival system).

          I don’t know how much real reform was underway independent of the Civil Rights movement, but I’m skeptical much would’ve happened without it. The political system had to be dragged kicking and screaming. In fact, even the historic, high-profile achievements of MLK and the movement in the 1960s did nothing to prevent the imposition of equally systematic, de facto racial segregation in California over the next 20 years (see Daniel HoSang’s work for more).

          I agree that “eliminat[ing] social mobility by killing and jailing to the point of their being only one social class” is no solution. I don’t agree that this is the essence or inevitable outcome of all the schools of thought that you seem to be lumping togther under the rubric of “Communism.”

          I don’t deny that culture and values play a role in creating and perpetuating poverty. I do reject,though, the implicit premise that one can effectively combat poverty by limiting the discussion to these factors, as people on the Right so often do. Yes, people need to take responsibility for their actions, but to exclude the impact of a constellation of concrete, longstanding discriminatory practices and circumstances from the discussion of contemporary racial problems is the anti-thesis of sound, pragmatic policymaking. It’s also hypocritical to preach endlessly about a group’s responsibilities when we refuse to discuss the ways that their freedoms and life chances have in some cases been systematically curtailed. It’s like limiting the discussion of health problems in an area with polluted ground water to food—it’s undoubtedly a factor, but others might be far more significant.

  • svend

    Hi, TM. Thanks so much for the analysis. I look forward to responding, but it’ll probably take a week or so, as I’m traveling.
    BTW, from what I understand the US involvement in Vietnam started in the late 1940s (which is when the first anti-war protest happened, on a Merchant Marine vessel). We bankrolled France’s Indochina misadventure and then intervened ourselves. So we certainly were the longest standing and most influential player in this endless campaign to deny the Vietnamese self-determination because they didn’t share our enthusiasm for Capitalism.

  • Mohammed Iqbal

    US did bear the greatest responsibility for ending the war in Vietnam, just as she brars the responsibility for the conflicts she initiated in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

  • TM Lutas

    Mohammed Iqbal – Do you have any actual evidence for your statement? Unlike Dr. King, you bear the moral burden of taking into account all the Soviet archive information that came out after the end of the Cold War. Parroting the Soviet line at this late date is no longer excusable as ignorance. Unless you come up with something novel, I’m afraid you’re advocating a morally dubious position for any monotheist (or decent human being really).
    I await your new evidence with interest.