Remembering the Real Martin Luther King

Twelve years ago, at a forum honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., some participants wanted to take the opportunity to make a statement opposing the Gulf War that had just broken out in the Middle East. The organizers objected, saying they did not want to detract from the message honoring King’s memory. Few who ever knew King and his work, however, could miss the irony of the organizers’ objections, for there is no question that had King still been alive he would have forcefully spoken out against the war, as he did all war.

As we celebrate his birthday on what may be the verge of another Gulf War, it is important to recognize that King (who would have turned 74 last week) would have unquestionably been on the forefront of the burgeoning movement opposing a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Most people who learn about Martin Luther King. in school learn about Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, the march on Washington and his other great accomplishments in leading the movement to end legal racial segregation in the South. Yet King saw that Jim Crow laws were but one manifestation of injustice in American society. King also opposed the de facto segregation in housing and other manifestations of racism in the north; he challenged the draining of our national resources for the military; he passionately opposed the Vietnam War and other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. He also questioned the very economic system which allowed for such enormous poverty in the midst of such great wealth. He died while planning the Poor People’s March, where he was to lead thousands of poor Americans (black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Indians) to Washington, DC to demand not just racial justice, but economic justice.

Perhaps it was no accident that he was murdered not during his campaign to end segregation, but when he began to challenge the foundations of American capitalism, militarism and imperialism.

In a sense, King’s right-wing critics were more on target than many of his liberal supporters today: King was a radical. Unlike recently-retired Senator Jesse Helms and others alleged, however, King was never a Communist. His deep religious faith made any adherence to the materialist values of Marxist-Leninism impossible. He was, however, a democratic socialist, a Christian socialist, who firmly believed that meeting the basic needs of the poor was a higher priority than ensuring profit for the few. He could never accept the communist dictum that “the end justifies the means;” indeed, central to his beliefs was the recognition that the means and the ends are inseparable.

For, even as he moved to the left later in his life, he never wavered on his firm commitment to nonviolence. To King, nonviolence was actually more radical than violence, which simply perpetuated the oppression of one group against the other. He believed that nonviolence was not just a tactic nor was it just a personal ethos; it was both. This gave King, like Mohandas Gandhi, the stature of being both a great moral leader and a brilliant political strategist. He recognized that nonviolence was strategically the only realistic option for oppressed African-Americans to achieve justice as well as the fact that violence would simply polarize the races and make true justice and reconciliation impossible.

While many liberal pacifists tend to overlook structural violence and many Marxists tend to overlook problems associated with behavioral violence, King saw that it was important to address both pathologies. Indeed, King recognized that structural violence could truly be overcome only through the bold and creative application of nonviolent action. He recognized that it would be naive to put too much faith in the electoral process or the judiciary to bring justice; he knew that real change must come from below. At the same time, he recognized it would also be naive to believe that violence could ever bring real justice. For, in his words, it was no longer a question of violence versus nonviolence, but nonviolence versus non-existence.