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MLK, the tyrannical socialist

An old, but still utterly apt article cuts through the sentimentality we go through every year around MLK day.

By 1967, King had also become the country’s most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 — a year to the day before he was murdered — King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, the U.S. was “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” King questioned “our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America,” and asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions “of the shirtless and barefoot people” in the Third World, instead of supporting them.

In foreign policy, King also offered an economic critique, complaining about “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.”

You haven’t heard the “Beyond Vietnam” speech on network news retrospectives, but national media heard it loud and clear back in 1967 — and loudly denounced it. Life magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post patronized that “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

In his last months, King was organizing the most militant project of his life: the Poor People’s Campaign. He crisscrossed the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would descend on Washington — engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be — until Congress enacted a poor people’s bill of rights. Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.”

King’s economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America’s cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its “hostility to the poor” — appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.”

How familiar that sounds today, more than a quarter-century after King’s efforts on behalf of the poor people’s mobilization were cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

If King were alive today the Glenn Beck’s and Sarah Palin’s would be calling him a demonic communist trying to take America away from us. We have no problem fetishizing King as the enlightened proclaimer of racial equality. But can America remember the historical King who condemned the systemic violence of the United States at home and abroad? The King who crusaded on behalf of the poor?

Well, no. Clearly not.


  1. Nathan Smith wrote:

    King’s murder provided an interesting opportunity for our nation. It allowed us to sentimentalize the part of his program the national consciousness came to like and delete the part it did not. Hence every school child in the US knows much about him, yet they know nothing of his anti-war stance in Vietnam. If King were not murdered, he’d probably still be known as an anti-war anti-poverty activist, though much less respected at that.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  2. I spent MLK day listening to that speech (Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam). I had to post on it. The guy was not an American hero, but a prophet. A man with citizenship in another commonwealth.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  3. Auggie Webster wrote:

    Want proof of King’s suspicions and the polar opposite of his Christian vision? How about Bible verses stamped on U.S. combat rifles:

    My what a superabundant symbol some enterprising blogger could write a lengthy post on.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Ugh. I would If I thought I could bear it. Maybe Ben Myers can do one of his theology FAIL posts on it.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  5. Marvin wrote:

    He had dual citizenship. His rhetoric was saturated with scripture and his movement was based in the Church, but he also appealed to Americans to live up to their highest civic ideals. He had hard things to say about America, but he spoke the truth in love, as someone who loved his country, and was thus grieved by how it was hurting him and itself. He did not speak in the tones of far left, anti-American self-hatred, or their stained glass fellow travelers, some of whom frequent this blog. That’s certainly one reason why King succeeded whereas the political Left has been stymied and the religious Left marginalized since King’s passing.

    I’m all for remembering King’s anti-war and antipoverty work, but the fact that Americans revere the campaign against segregation is not merely an attempt to whitewash his legacy. It means that America has changed, and for the better. There was nothing sentimental about integrating schools in 1957. That such notions are accepted as common sense today is progress, and could only be minimized by those who aren’t old enough to remember the way it used to be, or who want to be churlish or cynical about the ability of the wider society to be reformed.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

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