From firstname.lastname@example.org Mon Jan 16 07:00:41 2006
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2006 12:41:06 -0600 (CST)
Subject: [NYTr] Martin Luther King, Jr.: Democratic Socialist
To: undisclosed-recipients: ;
One of the many disturbing characteristics of dominant American ideology is the way it deletes radical-democratic beliefs from the official memory of certain acknowledged great historical personalities.
How many Americans know that the celebrated scientist Albert Einstein
Man of the 20th Century by Time Magazine) was a
self-proclaimed leftist who wrote an essay titled
for the first issue of the venerable Marxist journal Monthly Review?(1)
Probably about as many as who know that Helen Keller (typically
recalled as an example of what people can attain through purely
individual initiative or
self-help) was a radical fan of the
Russian Revolution (2).
Or that Thomas Jefferson despised the developing state capitalism of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, warning that it was creating a new absolutism of concentrated power more dangerous than the one Americans rebelled against in 1776 (3).
We might also consider the all-too deleted radical egalitarianism of
an itinerant Mediterranean-Jewish peasant named Jesus. Jesus rejected
the dominant classist cultural norms of his time by advocating and
practicing open commensality (the shared taking of food by people of
all classes, races, ethnicities, and genders) and by sharing material
and spiritual gifts across the interrelated hierarchies of social and
geographical place? As biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan notes,
he saw the
Kingdom of God as
a community of radical
equality*unmediated by established brokers or fixed locations (4).
Along the way, Jesus is reputed to have said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter that kingdom. He condemned the personal accumulation of earthly treasures and made it clear that God was no respecter of rich persons.. He insisted that one must serve either God or Mammon and pronounced the poor blessed and inheritors of the earth (5).
Such radical sentiments are largely absent from the vapid, falsely
comforting, reactionary, and institutionalized twaddle that has so
long passed for
Christianity in corporate America.
Another example of this radical historical whitewashing is provided by
America's own Martin Luther King, Jr., whose
I Have a Dream
speech is routinely broadcast and praised across the land on the
national holiday named for him. In the official, domesticated version
of King's life, the great civil rights leader sought little more
than the overthrow of Jim Crow segregation and voting rights for
blacks in the U.S. South. Beyond these victories, the
Negro that American ideological authorities wish for King to have
been only wanted whites to be nicer to a select few
African-Americans—giving some small number of trusted blacks
highly visible public positions (Secretary of State?), places on the
Ten O'Clock News Team....the right to manage a baseball team
and/or an occasional Academy Award and/or their own television show.
How many Americans know that King was rather unimpressed by his
movement's mid-1960s triumphs over southern racism (and his own
1964 Nobel Prize), viewing the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts as
relatively partial and merely bourgeois accomplishments that
dangerously encouraged mainstream white America to think that the
nation's racial problems
were automatically solved? How
many know that King considered these early victories to have fallen
far short of his deeper objective: advancing social, economic,
political, and racial justice across the entire nation (including its
northern, ghetto-scarred cities) and indeed around the world?
How many Americans know about the King who followed the defeat of open
racism in the South by
turning North in an effort to take the
civil rights struggle to a radical new level?
It was one thing, this King told his colleagues, for blacks to win the right to sit at a lunch counter. It was another thing for black and other poor people to get the money to buy a lunch.
It was one thing, King argued, to open the doors of opportunity for some few and relatively privileged African-Americans. It was another thing to move millions of black and other disadvantaged people out of economic despair. It was another and related thing to dismantle slums and overcome the deep structural and societal barriers to equality that continued after public bigotry was discredited and after open discrimination was outlawed.
It was one thing, King felt, to defeat the overt racism of snarling southerners like Bull Connor; it was another thing to confront the deeper, more covert institutional racism that lived beneath the less openly bigoted, smiling face of northern and urban liberalism.
It was one thing. King noted, to defeat the anachronistic caste structure of the South. It was another thing to attain substantive social and economic equality for black and other economically disadvantaged people across the entire nation (6).
How many Americans know about the King who linked racial and social
inequality at home to (American) imperialism and social disparity
abroad, denouncing what he called
the triple evils that are
racism, economic exploitation, and war?
nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years, Kind told
the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) in 1967,
‘thingify’ them—make them things. Therefore they
will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a
nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign
investments and everything else, and will have to use its military
might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together
How many Americans have been encouraged to know the King who responded
to America's massive assault on Southeast Asia during the 1960s by
pronouncing the U.S. government
the greatest purveyor of violence
in the world today (8), adding (in words that George W. Bush ought
to give George W. Bush pause) that America had no business
for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not
put even our own [freedom] house in order? (9)
In words that holding haunting relevance for George W. Bush's
supposedly divinely mandated war on Iraq, King proclaimed that
didn't call American to do what she's doing in the world now.
God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war,
[such] as the war in Vietnam.
And we, King added,
are criminals in that war. We have
committed more war crimes almost than any other nation in the world
and we won't stop because of our piide, our arrogance as a
How many know that King said a nation (the U.S.)
spiritual death when it spent billions of dollars feeding its
costly, cancerous military industrial complex while masses of its
children lived in poverty in its outwardly prosperous cities (11)?
How many know the King who said that Americans should follow Jesus in
divine[ly] dissatisifed...until the
the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort
from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the
battering rams of the forces of justice.... until slums are cast into
the junk heaps of history and every family is living in a decent
home...[and] men will recognize that out of one blod God made all men
to dwell upon the face of the earth? (12)
How many know the King who told the SCLC that
the movement must
address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American
society. There are forty million poor people, King elaborated for
And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why
are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you
beging to ask that question, you are riasing questions about the
economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask
that question you begin to question the capitalistic economy.
We are called upon, King told his fellow civil rights
to help the discouraged beggars in life's
marketplace. But one day, he argued,
we must come to see that
an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that
[radical] questions must be raised.....‘Who owns the
oil’...‘Who owns the iron ore?’...‘Why is it that
people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds
How many know that King was a democratic socialist who thought that
drastic reforms involving the
radical reconstruction of
society itself could
save us from social catastrophe ?
Consistent with Marx and contrary to bourgeois moralists like Charles
Dickens, King argued that
the roots of the economic injustice
he sought to overcome
are in the [capitalist] system rather in men
or faulty operations (14)
Interestingly enough, the fourth officially de-radicalized historical
character mentioned in this essay (King) saw through the conservative
historical whitewashing of the third (Jesus). Here's how King
described Jesus at the end of an essay published eight months after
the civil rights leader was assassinated:
A voice out of Bethlehem
two thousand years ago said that all men are equal....Jesus of
Nazareth wrote no books; he owned no property to endow him with
influence. He had no friends in the courts of the powerful. But he
changed the course of mankind with only the poor and the despised.
King concluded this final essay, titled
A Testament of Hope,
with a strikingy radical claim, indicating his strong identification
with society's most disadvantaged and outcast persons.
and unsophisticated though we may be, King said,
the poor and
despised of the twentieth century will revolutionize this era. In our
‘arrogance, lawlessness, and ingratitude,’ we will fight
for human justice, brotherhood, secure peace, and abundance for
If I hadn't known better the first time I read that phrase, I might have attributed it to Eugene Debs.
1. Paul Street,
Einstein: Socialist of the Century, In These
Times (February 21, 2000).
2. James Loewn, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Text Got Wrong (NY, 1995), pp. 10-12, 22, 222.
3. Noam Chomsky, Power and Prospects: Reflections on Huiman Nature and the Social Order (Boston, 1996), pp. 72, 87-89.
4. John Dominic Crossan. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (NY, 1995), p. 101 (quote) and passim.
5. Mathew 19:20-24, 6:19, 6:24.
6. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, Playboy (January 1969), reproduced in King, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr (NY, 1986), p. 322; Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here (NY, 1967); David J. Garrow, Bearing the Vross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (NY, 1986), pp. 420-624.
7. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Where Do We Go From Here?, speech
New Sense of Direction in Worldviews, 15 (April
8. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
A Time to Break the Silence, 1967
speech to Riverside Church published in Freedomways, 7 (Spring 1967).
9. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Remaining Awake Through a Great
Revolution, Congressional Record 114 (9 April 1968): 9395-9397.
10. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
The Drum Major Instinct, February
4th 1968 speech, in King, A Testament of Hope, p. 265
A Time to Break the Silence.
12. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
The Power of Nonviolence,
Intercollegian (May 1958);
Where Do We Go From Here?
Where Do We Go From Here?
A Testament of Hope; Martin Luther King, Jr., The
Trumpet of Conscience (NY, 1967); Garrow, Bearing the Cross,
pp. 591-592; Michael Eric Dysoan, I May Not Get There With You: The
True Martin Luther King, Jr. (NY, 2000), 87-88.
A Testament of Hope