The Real Martin Luther King

Eamonn McCann has an article in the Irish Times about Martin Luther King and the fact that he lost a great deal of support among both blacks and whites after the passage of the Civil Rights Act because he broadened his message to embrace anti-war and anti-poverty protests.

Martin Luther King didn’t die an American hero. By the time of his assassination in Memphis in April 1968 he had lost the support of a majority of African Americans and had been deserted by almost all the white liberals who had backed the civil rights movement…

King’s popularity – already in decline from its pinnacle following the “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington four years earlier – had plummeted after his address at the Riverside church in New York on April 4th 1967, a year to the day before his death. His focus at Riverside had been on the war in Vietnam.

King had also lost support by increasingly relating the oppression of African Americans to the plight of the poor of all communities.

At Riverside, he drew a direct line from the killing fields of Indochina to the ghettoes of the US, speaking of “the cruel irony of watching Negro boys and white boys on TV as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together at the same schools.”

Black youngsters were dying at proportionately twice the rate of whites. The rioting classes had answered his pleas for non-violence by pointing to the violence perpetrated in Vietnam. “Their questions hit home and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”…

His one-time media champions were aghast. Ben Bradlee’s Washington Post commented: “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.”

The New York Times declared that he had done a disservice to both the peace and civil rights movements and had “slandered” the US military…

King had travelled to Memphis to try to energise a faltering strike by sanitation workers. By this stage a national poll indicated that 57 percent of African Americans considered him “irrelevant”, while 14 per cent had no view on whether he was or not.

This is yet another reason why the constant attempts by conservatives to rewrite history and adopt King as their own are so utterly absurd. King was a democratic socialist who advocated a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans and a staunch foe of American imperialism. He wasn’t just a civil rights leader.


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  • StevoR

    The Real Martin Luther King. He’s dead, they killed him but his words, his example, his power, his pride lives on and scares them still.

    They cannot tame it, They don’t know it. They don’t know him and he sure as hell was never theirs to own or claim. Not in any way.

  • davidworthington

    Tavis Smiley’s recent book on King’s last year relates much of the angst that King faced as he moved forward coming out against the war (knowing it would sever his relationship with LBJ), the pushback from civil rights leadership, and the problem he had raising funds. I think as well the failure of the country to respond better after ’65 contributed to a Gandalf in Moria moment for many who despised gradualism and believed that MLK and non-violence had already had their moments.


  • marcus

    StevoR @ 2 Goddamn straight they can’t! There are no words adequate to my contempt for those despicable fools.