Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis.
Every major press outlet in the United States will commemorate his life this week. The Washington Post is running a series of commentaries. The New York Times ran an emotional editorial written by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was with King in Memphis that fateful day.
Neither paper will mention that they each denounced Dr. King in his later years.
Nor will any outlet today likely mention that King had fallen sharply out of favor with much of the national media exactly a year earlier, 51 years ago today, on April 4, 1967. The offense was a speech in New York.=
In that speech, King spoke of the “hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence” abroad, and added that a country as financially and politically committed to war as ours could never fight a “War on Poverty” in earnest.
At Riverside Church 51 years ago today, King spoke of feeling hopeful in the early sixties. He believed then that the sweeping commitment to social reform that was an early focus of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations might actually bear fruit:
“There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war.
And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”
The condemnation of what became known as King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech was universal. One hundred and sixty-eight newspapers denounced him in the days that followed. These editorials had a peculiarly vicious flavor. It was clear that King’s main transgression was not knowing his place.
The Washington Post wrote that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.”
The New York Times, in “Dr. King’s Error,” reminded King that his proper battlegrounds were “in Chicago and Harlem and Watts.”
They said King, as an individual, was of course free to think about Vietnam, but, as a leader of black people, he had an obligation to stay in his lane, i.e. to “direct [his] movement’s efforts in the most constructive and relevant way.”
Poisonously, and characteristically – for this is a propaganda trick that sadly has survived to this day – the Times also took King to task for his suspicious failure to admonish the Vietnamese enemy. “It is possible to disagree with many aspects of United States policy in Vietnam,” the paper hissed, “without whitewashing Hanoi.” Even back then, domestic criticism was always linked to comforting a foreign enemy.
The critiques hurt. King experienced a significant loss of support, even among black Americans. King knew this would happen. It shines through in the Riverside address that he clearly understood the political perils of what he was saying.
Many of the early parts of King’s speech stressed the difficulty of his decision to speak on the subject at all. He came that day, he said, “because my conscience leaves me with no other choice,” adding that:
“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war.”
King spoke of touring “the desperate, rejected, and angry young men” of the northern ghettos in the three years prior to the speech, and trying to convince them that “Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems.”
Some of these angry young men must have answered King’s Stockholm-worthy nonviolence homilies with pointed questions of their own. In particular, they asked about Vietnam, i.e. “How can you tell black people to drop their weapons when you don’t have the guts to tell the white leaders of government to stop using force to solve their problems?”
King, who was intellectually honest in a way that is so rare as to be nonexistent among today’s political leaders, was rattled by these critics. He finally admitted, “These questions hit home.” He added (emphasis mine):
“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 today: my own government.”
This is who King seemed to be in his last years: a man who felt profound burdens and was being moved inexorably, both by his own thoughts and by the movements of history, toward a more universalist, internationalist outlook.
King’s commitment to nonviolence as an essential principle of human existence was leading him to the revolutionary view that there was a deep, incurable sickness in our militaristic society, something that could not be fixed without radical change.
During the final months of his life, King was organizing another march on Washington dedicated to what he called his Poor People’s campaign. He was planning acts of civil disobedience aimed at the fundamental injustices of the American way of life.
King foresaw that economic hardship and job loss would eventually heighten tensions between low-income blacks and whites.
Through ideas like that “Poor People’s Campaign,” he sought what he’d once described as a “grand alliance” between whites and blacks in targeting the “social evils” that “oppress both” – the lack of basic living wages, health care, affordable housing, and education.
He also told American leaders they lacked the moral authority to instruct black citizens to disavow violence. “The users of naval guns, millions of tons of bombs, and revolting napalm can not speak to Negroes about violence,” he said.
Once beloved by white liberals as a calming influence, King was beginning to use threateningly confrontational language to demand of whites the same kind of intellectual honesty he’d demanded of himself.
This is the same Martin Luther King who was somehow described by the Washington Post editorial board, just last year, as a “true conservative.” The paper deadpanned that King was to be celebrated mainly for achieving change without rocking the boat too much.
King, the Post said, was a man who “worked to turn back extremism, violence and racial nationalism at the height of the civil rights movement, and to keep the cause of essential and long-overdue change in the American mainstream.”
This was exactly the opposite of King’s message at the end of his life. In late 1967, King pooh-poohed the “violence” and “extremism” criticisms of the civil rights movement, explicitly saying the excesses of urban rioters were “infinitely less dangerous and immoral” than the cold, corporatized murder of the “American mainstream.”
“If destruction of property is deplorable,” he asked, “what is the use of napalm on people?”
Yet the “mainstream” King is the one most Americans have been conditioned to believe in.
That 1965 version of King (the one from Selma) is how most Americans – especially white Americans – like to think of the man: a black leader narrowly concerned with black issues, not a mighty universal intellectual who foresaw with stunning clarity the long-term problems that would result from economic inequality and the open-ended use of state-sanctioned violence.
It’s hard to know where to start
But he might also ask us to think about our sorrow over incidents like Parkland and Sandy Hook in terms of the pain families in places like Syria and Yemen feel when their children die by our bombs. He would remind us that violence is a universal evil, not just when it affects us.
King was both fascinated and confounded by the subject of the United States. In that unpopular speech delivered 51 years ago today, he quoted Langston Hughes:
O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Even feeling betrayed by this country, King fought for it, understanding its critical role in humanity’s future. He died wanting us to radically change our way of life.
But history has sanitized him, turning him into a mainstream leader who accomplished what he could within an acceptable role. That sanitizing continues on each of these anniversaries, and is a sad commentary on our inability to listen to even the best of us.