[Documents menu] Documents menu

From worker-brc-news@lists.tao.ca Fri Jan 19 14:04:47 2001
Date: Fri, 19 Jan 2001 04:55:31 -0500
From: Stephen C Ferguson <scfergu@eagle.cc.ukans.edu>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Dr. King's Final Mission and Messagey Sender: worker-brc-news@lists.tao.ca
Precedence: bulk
To: brc-news@lists.tao.ca

A Time to Break the Silence on Dr. King's Final Mission and Message

By John H. McClendon III <jmcclend@bates.edu>, January 2001

A Conspectus on Drs. King, Du Bois, and West

We cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact he was a Communist in his later years... It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational obsessive anti-communism has led us into many quagmires to be retained as if it was a mode of scientific thinking.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Honoring Dr. Du Bois
Freedomways (Spring 1968)

Today, as we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we cannot be remiss in recognizing that his legacy in history remains a contested zone. Dr. King's legacy, the meaning of his message and the manner of his mission, at this very moment in history, constitutes an ideological battleground. An ideological battleground between those forces intent on fashioning an image of King as a moralist, anchored to liberal pacifism, and those who recognize that his death did not result from liberal pacifism or the fact he dreamed of racial harmony in this country.

Unfortunately, we find certain prominent African American intellectuals; such as Dr. Cornel West have joined the bandwagon in distorting Dr. King's legacy. Elevating King's moral vision at the expense of his acute grasp of the social and political economic realities in this country. King's astute understanding of these material realities and further- more, his programmatic thrust to transform them, we submit, not unlike Malcolm X before him, led to his untimely death. Dr. King's legacy is rich with many lessons, which we must garner and cultivate, always with the aim of advancing the struggle, as we enter into this new millennium.

Many of the same forces such as Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, who led the Cold War repression against Black leaders, in the person of the stalwart anti-imperialist artist, Paul Robeson and the scholar/activist, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois; aimed their sights on Dr. King and other progressives, in the year 1968. The infamous COINTELPRO initiative, intended to destroy African American radical leaders and militant organizations, resulted in the deaths and imprisonment of scores of gallant fighters. Malcolm X, Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party were just the tip of the iceberg. Many lesser-known figures died or languished in prison under the aegis of national security and what, then vice president, Spiro Agnew's called `The Campaign for Law and Order'. We must alert our younger readers that there are many today, who remain incarcerated as political prisoners in the United States' penal system.

Dr. King fully and deeply comprehended the nature of the crisis sweeping the United States. Indeed, he had found this crisis was not only moral in character but also, in its very essence, to be profoundly social and political economic. Consequently, King joined the anti-imperialist forces in the campaign against the Vietnam War and denounced the liberal Lyndon B. Johnson as well as the conservative Nixon administrations.

Former liberal supports of Dr. King, both Black and white, denounced him. They charged King was only a leader of the civil rights movement and therefore, not qualified to speak on issues outside of its boundaries. Moreover, they thought, King's proposed `Poor Peoples' March' went too far beyond civil rights and hinted at a kind of `Un-Americanism', fostering class struggle and socialism. They anxiously inquired, what happen to the King of `I have a Dream'? King's historic and memorable elocution, wherein his rhythmic cadence about the `American Dream' brought hope of a liberal America, an America bereft of racism. Now, they declared, King had betrayed the liberal dream. In fact, his critics shouted King had fallen into the hands of the `Un-Americans', that motley and unsavory crew of anti-war activists, socialists and Communists.

Such actions and declarations were reminiscent of their liberal fore runners who, during the plague of McCarthyism, conveniently denounced Robeson and Du Bois as traitors to the cause and country. These knee-jerk liberals stood silently as Du Bois and Robeson were violently assaulted; forced from meaningful employment; denied their First Amendment rights; restrictive from traveling abroad; jailed and brought before the witch hunts conducted by the House of Un-American Activities.

Indubitably, the Marxist influenced stage in Du Bois' thinking expanded his understanding of imperialism and compelled him to break with the liberalism of the NAACP and link up with strong voices from the Black left. Thus, for example, Du Bois worked closely with Paul Robeson, Shirley Graham (Du Bois), Alphaeus Hunton, Maude White and others in the anti-imperialist organization, the Council on African Affairs. Correspondingly, Du Bois, during the post-World War II period, defied the bourgeois ruling class and its repressive state apparatus and, at great personal cost, assumed the political position of anti-imperialist fighter, in the cause for world socialism. Furthermore, as Herbert Aptheker and Gerald Horne's scholarship lay bare Du Bois not only actively participated in the struggle for African American liberation but also became involved in the anti- colonial, labor and international peace movements. Du Bois, in fact, assumed the role as pivotal leader in all of these causes. Ultimately, he joined the ranks of the Communist Party USA. (1)

Cornel West, who defines his own political position as prophetic pragmatism, openly bemoans Du Bois' allegiance to Communism, Du Bois ultimately preferred a repressive communism that resisted European and American imperialism to a racist America that promoted the subjugation of peoples of color. (2) West backhandedly reduces Du Bois' commitment to Communism as the lesser of two evils. In contradistinction, no less a dialectician than Martin Luther King, Jr. fully appreciated the intellectual and political contributions of Du Bois as Communist. King's position is unequivocal and steadfast, his statement clear and sharp:

We cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact he was a Communist in his later years... It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational obsessive anti-communism has led us into many quagmires to be retained as if it was a mode of scientific thinking.(3)

Hence, our epigram clearly demarcates West's rightist, or in Dr. King's words `obsessive anti-communist', political perspective on Dr. Du Bois. With this statement, we find how starkly different is West's assessment from Martin Luther King's. King provides a progressive left and bold stance, less than two months before his assassination. Although, King as dialectician, like Du Bois before him, began as a Hegelian and evolved to a more profound and politically radical understanding of dialectics, West does not formally recruit King as a prophetic pragmatist. Nevertheless, King is depicted, given his moral vision, as an exemplar of the possibilities of prophetic pragmatism. Consequently, King's enters into the pragmatist tradition by means of West's backdoor or should I say King ends up sitting in the back of West's pragmatic bus.

West candidly states, King was not a prophetic pragmatist nevertheless he was prophet, in which role he contributed mightily to the political project of prophetic pragmatism. His all-embracing moral vision facilitated the alliances and coalitions across racial, gender, class, and religious lines. (4)

Gooding-Williams insightfully inquires,

Is West claiming that 'moral vision' as distinct from the convergence of interests, played an exceptionally important role in sustaining the coalitions with which King involved himself during the civil rights movement? And if this is West's claim, what are we to say about the fact that, when King's political agenda change in the mid-sixties, he found himself attempting to lead a very different coalition of groups than he led previously (though some of his allies deserted him, he seems always to have envisioned the possibility of enlisting in new ones), even though, it seems, his moral commitments did not change?(5)

In our answer to Gooding-Williams' interrogations, we must first examine the concrete history of Dr. King's political perspective. For if King's moral commitment did not change, then we must understand how his political commitments changed. Moreover, we have to grasp his political trans- formation with respect to his ideological formation. Second, we will reference West's ideological and political assessment of prophetic pragmatism. Thus enabling us to evaluate its ideological and political suitability for King, as a putative exemplar of the possibilities for prophetic pragmatism. King's changing political views become most evident especially after 1964. This year becomes crucially important because it marks the stage where and how Dr. King emerges onto the explosive terrain of more openly political contra civil rights struggles. The moment is around the intense battle over the seating of Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer's Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. King relinquishes his support of the MFDP and joins forces with Lyndon Johnson and additionally, the Dixiecrat segregationists', such as Senator James Eastland, in their calls for a compromise. However, Hamer's criticism of Dr. King's failure to support the MFDP did not go unheeded.

After, this critical juncture, we discover Dr. King's ever- developing radicalism, his rejection of liberalism and adoption of anti-imperialism. Furthermore, he seriously engages in a class analysis of capitalism and shifts his focus to poor people and their plight. In many respects, King's political and ideological development parallels and reflects Dr. Du Bois' path of dialectical development from liberal democrat to Communist. West is forthright in defining the ideological dimension of prophetic pragmatism. West pronounces,

Prophetic pragmatism worships at no ideological altars. It condemns oppression anywhere and everywhere, be it the brutal butchering of third-world dictators, the regimentation and repression of peoples in the Soviet Union and Soviet- bloc countries, or the racism, patriarchy, homophobia and economic injustice in the first-world capitalist nation... Nor is prophetic pragmatism confined to any preordained historical agent, such as the working-class, black people, or women. Rather, it invites all people of goodwill both here and abroad to fight for an Emersonian culture of creative democracy in which the plight of the wretched of the earth is alleviated.(6)

We think after reviewing West's assessment it ought to be obvious, to most readers, that West's concerns about Du Bois' allegiance to Communism are straightforwardly and simply a matter of fundamental ideological opposition. An ideological opposition, in its basis of which is sustained by the all-embracing, non-class approach of prophetic pragmatism. In view of this ideological opposition, West's efforts to include Du Bois in his pragmatist tradition are all the more disingenuous, and not to mention crassly opportunistic.

With respect to King, what is important to note, West attempts to link him with his own brand of liberalism, which is at root the ideological buttress of prophetic pragmatism. Given the traditional account of King's legacy of leadership, namely, the liberal democratic gloss associated with King's `I have a Dream' speech, we think West's `moral vision' in abstraction of determinate political interests and agents reinforces the image of King as a-political moralist, representing the best of the `American' bourgeois liberal tradition. What we get in political and ideological terms are a rather sanitary and amorphous King. King is now the social actor and political figure open to all people, irrespective of ideological position. In effect, King's `moral vision', for West, effectively reduces him to a harmless liberal, devoid of any militant and radical perspective on bourgeois society.

Yet the epigram indicates King was not remiss in recognizing a certain kinship with Du Bois' radicalism, including his commitment to Communism. King's expanding perspective on the nature of the movement and as well his leftist ideological turn toward anti-imperialism was quite consistent with Du Bois' legacy. King, unlike West, rather than decry the fact of (or apology for) Du Bois' communism instead unabashedly hoists the ideological issue of communism to the very forefront of the movement. Given, the timing of King's declaration on Du Bois, February of 1968, it appears King was self-consciously motivated to bring forth his new and more radical ideological insights to a broader public. For after all, King was not planning an all peoples' march but a Poor Peoples' March on Washington. From King's perspective, as with Du Bois, the struggle was constituted in definite historical agents and concrete political aims. It was not simply a matter of `all people of goodwill' and their moral vision. King's moral vision was adjoined with determinate social interests and grounded in political economic tasks that elevated class tasks as central to his agenda. Moreover, King combined these interests and tasks in an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist manner.

We must diligently and seriously study Dr. King's work if they are to have any relevance to us at this point in our struggle. We cannot overlook his penetrating analysis in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community. He states,

So far we have had constitutional backing for most of our demands for change... [N]ow we're approaching areas where the voice of the Constitution is not clear. We have left the realm of Constitutional rights and we're now entering the arena of human rights. This Constitution assured the right to vote but there is no such assurance to adequate housing, or of the right to adequate income...(153)

Here, King's break with liberalism is most obvious. He grasps the limits of what can be expected from the state and the contradictions it poses for the real conditions of economic misery and exploitation under capitalism. Perhaps, if we conclude with Dr. King's last address to his organization, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we can comprehend how far from Dr. West, and how close to Dr. Du Bois, Dr. King stood:

For years I have labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the South. A little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you've got to have a reconstruction of the entire society.


(1) Herbert Aptheker, W. E. B. Du Bois and Africa in Marvin Berlowitz and Carol Martin, Eds. Racism, Imperialism and Peace (Minneapolis: MEP Publications, 1987) Gerald Horne, Black and Red: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-63 (Albany: State University of New York, 1986).

(2) Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989): 149.

(3) Martin Luther Jr., Honoring Dr. Du Bois Freedomways (Spring 1968): 109.

(4) Cornel West, The American Evasion, 235.

(5) Robert Gooding-Williams, Evading Narrative Myth, Evading Prophetic Pragmatism: Cornel West's The American Evasion of Philosophy, The Massachusetts Review (Winter 1991-2): 536.

(6) Cornel West, The American Evasion, 235.