I go to civil rights rallies...
I hope every colored boy becomes a star.
But don't talk about revolution,
That's going a little bit too far.
-- Phil Ochs, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal"
It's hard to imagine a more noxious despoiling of the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. than George Bush's butting in on the King Day celebration in Atlanta last year while on his way to stuff his pockets with cash from the South's throngs of neo-cons -- that's neo-Confederates.But it was fitting. Even a party that built its base by appealing to racism can now lay claim to King's legacy. The "how" is simple: The real MLK has all but been erased from our history. What's left is so anemic -- and so distorted -- that even George Wallace or Jesse Helms or, Heaven help us, Zell Miller could claim kinship.
The culprits in this desecration aren't hard to find. However, here's the surprise: It's not the green-toothed, Confederate-flag-waving redneck bigots. Nor is it the more well-heeled racists in the Republican Party. Rather, it's the liberal establishment, beginning with Democratic Party leaders who, just as they flee from the true King, run in panic from men of principle, such as Howard Dean, to embrace the grand waffler, John Kerry. And, the perps also include the "liberal" media, where scribes have obliterated the great man's true spirit.
Here's the story you aren't told.
As we celebrate King's birthday -- he'd be 76 this year -- we could do a lottery on guessing the number of times TV news shows depict his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. You'll see plenty of footage from the civil rights marches in Selma and Birmingham. There will be the usual cacophony of chattering heads scratching their chins and ruminating on whether the civil rights movement was a success.
Pay close attention to the broadcast reports and newspapers. You'll notice that discussion of King's life ends somewhere in 1966. Seldom -- almost never -- will you view or read about his post-1966 days, other than a mention that King was murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Put another way, why do we ceaselessly hear the "I Have a Dream" speech, while we never are enlightened with the equally moving "Beyond Vietnam" speech King made at New York's Riverside Church a year before his death. The message King thundered was revolutionary -- a word I am very specific in choosing. He declared:
"If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read "Vietnam.' It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over."
Substitute "Iraq" for "Vietnam" and King's words are as true now as 38 years ago.
Civil rights leaders had been muted on the war -- and generally avoided the even more dangerous turf of questioning the basic inequalities in America's economic system. The reasons were simple: The movement needed Lyndon Johnson's support, so its strategists, including King for many years, were publicly neutral on LBJ's war. And the backbone -- especially when it came to funds -- of the movement was the liberal establishment, which might want to tweak capitalism a bit but certainly opposed any radical changes.
King was a dynamic, growing and ever-changing force, a righteous rocket whose trajectory veered sharply left in his last days. He broke with many in the civil rights movement and declared that not only was he opposed to Vietnam, the conflict was anathema to the values and principles Americans cherish.Much, much, much more important, King realized that racism was only a symptom, that the nation's true struggle was with pervasive economic disparities. He was busy organizing the Poor People's Campaign -- a far-reaching movement that called for what amounted to Christian socialism -- when he was gunned down in Memphis.
The campaign's wheels fell off under the post-King captaincy of Ralph David Abernathy, but the vision nonetheless had the potential of reshaping America. I'd argue that had King lived -- even realizing that weak-kneed liberals would have abandoned him -- the campaign's coalition of blacks, poor Appalachian whites, Chicanos, Native Americans and all who truly embrace religious and moral values could have reshaped the nation and world. It's conceivable that an America invested in human rights and economic justice would have quieted the world's suffering -- and prevented Sept. 11, 2001.
As Atlanta Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, the closest thing to a revolutionary in Washington, observed to me: "To understand Dr. King, you have to understand the whole tapestry of his life. His message was peace abroad, justice at home. It was a message that was dangerous to many. The Poor People's Campaign was an economic bill of rights. We still need that bill of rights."
No doubt. Census figures show that the unemployment rate for blacks is more than double the rate for whites -- and the gap is wider than in 1972. Black infant mortality, 146 percent higher than for whites, is greater than in 1970. Even more troubling, median income for black families was 60 percent that of whites in 1968. It had slipped to 58 percent in 2002.
King would have used taxes to redistribute wealth -- just as the Republicans are doing in reverse. He would have fought for housing, education, jobs.
"We're dealing in a sense with class issues," King said. "We're dealing with the problem of the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, between the privileged and the underprivileged. And we're taking on a mammoth job now, and it isn't going to be easy."
For the profiteers who run the shadowy war machine, for those who steal the wealth of the middle and working classes, and for their media shills, King was a very real threat.
Time magazine excoriated King's anti-war sentiments, stating that they "sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." Doreen Roy, a columnist for Atlanta's daily newspaper, in 1968 sneered that Poor People's Campaign marchers would do better if they "had marched to the nearest employment agency instead of our nation's capital."
With that economic picture -- and with Bush's imperial war machine making enemies of much of the world -- you'd think King's final messages on peace and a wholesale restructuring of economics would be offered to counter the administration's programs.
After all, Bush's regime thrives along with terrorism, much as drug cops need drug lords and vice versa to keep both sides in business. A world aflame is the tool Bush uses to keep a frightened America enthralled, and it's the justification for everything from conquest to torture.
King, in 1967 and 1968, offered an alternative.
But the media is out to lunch. The more liberal the journalist, the less likely you'll find mention of King's final days. The conservatives at least pick up on the issue in order to bash King.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker, for example, is supposedly the liberal counterpoint to the Cox media empire's ultra-white-right demagogues such as columnist Jim Wooten and radio ranter Neal Boortz.
Nowhere in any of the AJC's archives could I find a mention by Tucker of where King was headed when he died. No mention of his Vietnam speeches, no mention of the revolutionary concepts in the Poor People's Campaign.
Last year on King's birthday, the paper ran an editorial on "King's Vision for America" that completely skipped over his endgame passion. I had to go back more than a dozen years to find any significant mention in the AJC of King's radical economic and anti-war agenda.
Tucker may be a liberal, but her boss is the billionaire 11 times over Anne Cox Chambers, who certainly isn't interested in the downward distribution of wealth and whose company happily marquees its racists.
Other papers are no better. I found five whole mentions of the Poor People's Campaign in The Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times archives, none in recent years. The Tampa Bay area papers had slight mentions of King and Vietnam, but no attempt to link his views to current world affairs. The Charlotte Observer had two oblique references to the Poor People's Campaign, but had no mention at all of King's powerful "Beyond Vietnam" speech and only incidental mentions of his anti-war convictions.
Remember that on Martin Luther King Day. Rereading his words and contemplating the symbiotic Bush-terrorism world, the evisceration of American workers' wealth, the regime's relentless attack on our liberties -- I'll march with the spirit of the real King. Not a liberal, but a revolutionary.
Group Senior Editor John Sugg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.