On Remembering Martin Luther King’s Anti-Imperialist, Anti-Capitalist Words

Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968)

By Benay Blend

Like other revolutionaries in this country, King’s memory has been sanitized, reduced to a few lines in his “I have a Dream Speech”.

Martin Luther King Day, on January 15, has come and gone, but his legacy lives on. In fact, as Margaret Kimberley notes, most commemorations on this day are “tawdry displays of political cynicism and cooptation. The people must recapture the day from war criminals and their Black misleadership puppets.”

In 1968, Look magazine published Martin Luther King’s essay calling for an economic bill of rights. “We hear all this talk about our ability to afford guns and butter,” King charged, “but we have come to see that this is a myth, that when a nation becomes involved in this kind of war, when the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer.”

In this piece, published shortly after his assassination, King was talking about the war in Vietnam, once called America’s Longest War. Recently, however, Palestine Chronicle editors challenged that assumption by posting a timeline of America’s war on the Middle East, beginning in 1982, when the US sent ships to the Lebanese shores to bolster Israel’s invasion.

More recently, President Joe Biden has been bypassing Congress to send military weapons to Israel. According to Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara, sending Israel more weapons while asking that it spare civilian lives is “strategically self-defeating.” I would add that it is also immoral as well as a form of gaslighting the American public.

Despite continuous aid from the US, Israel’s war budget is dangerously inflated for the coming year. According to Palestine Chronicle staff,  Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has reportedly introduced a plan to increase  taxes on Israeli banks to pay for the 85 billion shekels ($24 billion) that the attack on Gaza is expected to cost in the coming year.

King was assassinated too early in his life to know how his position on Palestine would have changed. We do know that his attention had turned to opposing the war in Vietnam. He had also begun to delve into issues of poverty at home, perhaps even more controversial to the ruling class than civil rights.

“In an odd turn of events,” Kimberley writes, “the same people who want to celebrate King’s memory will invite senators and members of congress who vote for austerity at home and aggressions around the world, to pretend King Day celebrations.”

“His death,” Kimberley continues, “was followed by decades-long imprisonment of other liberation fighters, the mass incarceration system, and the creation of a buffer class for the purposes of cooptation.”

Like other revolutionaries in this country, King’s memory has been sanitized, reduced to a few lines in his “I have a Dream Speech,” which is much easier to find on the web than his anti-war work as well as his beginning to delve into poverty at home.

Indeed, his day of remembrance coincides with the Supreme Court agreeing to rule on the right of cities to place a ban on public camping, a case that could change policies on grappling with increasing homelessness at a time when billions are set to be sent to Israel and Ukraine in the coming year.

On April 4, 1967, King delivered his first speech against the war. In Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence, King called on this country to end the bombing and work towards a negotiated peace. His concern was not only that the war denigrated his belief in the brotherhood of all people, it also meant the defunding of President Johnson’s War on Poverty program which he thoroughly supported.

“Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war,” King said. “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam.”

His concern went beyond America’s well-being, though, to include the poor around the world. “This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances,” he continued,  a notion that we forget, particularly during election years when the choice is likely to be between a bonified criminal and the incumbent who has embraced genocide by funding “Israel’s” war machine.

It is a choice that is really no choice at all to those who heed King’s words: “(America) can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.”

On December 28, 2023, Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military armed wing of the Resistance movement, Hamas, released a statement that called attention to other nations that had won their freedom through combat. “Vietnam, Afghanistan, South Africa, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, and others”—all people who had thrown off occupation by a stronger power.

“While Israel is determined to end Palestinian Resistance, the Palestinian people’s determination to win their freedom is far greater,” contends Abu Obeida, a stance that King would have understood.

Despite Israel’s advanced weaponry, they have met their match in Gaza. According to Abu Obeida, most of the weapons used by the Resistance were made in Gaza, including anti-personnel shells, sniper guns, and various types of armaments.

In a speech commemorating the 100th day of the war, Abu Obeida said that the most important element of the Resistance are the people, “fearless, determined, and undefeatable.” Paraphrased by Palestine Chronicle editors, Abu Obeida’s talk concluded that “this type of armed resistance, where local resisters manufacture their own weapons, will become a central pillar in Palestinian collective resistance to the Israeli occupation and apartheid in the coming years.”

In addition to the armed Resistance, there are civilians who serve as pillars of sumud and resilience—the journalists who continue to report the news despite knowing there is a target on their backs; the medics, doctors and nurses who treat the injured in hospitals that are under attack; the people who cook not only for their families but the many displaced around them; and the many more who refuse to leave because the land that they are living on is their home.

In his “Three Evils of Society” speech, given on August 31, 1967 at the National Conference for New Politics in Chicago, King gave into a despair that was new for him, driven by the collapse of the Great Society, “shipwrecked” due to the cost of the war in Vietnam. Moreover, for the first time he had been booed by his own people, young folks who “were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted, turn into a frustrating nightmare.”

“The people cry for freedom and the congress attempts to legislate repression,” King lamented, much like today when our government turns its back at the mere mention of a ceasefire in Palestine, preferring instead to send “Israel” more money for its genocidal goals.

The three great evils that King named–racism, excessive materialism and militarism–have been part of this country since its founding, he said, problems that in King’s time culminated in the war in Vietnam. What would he think now of the Supreme Court considering the criminalization of homelessness, perhaps fining and/or jailing people for sleeping on the street?

“Somewhere we must see that justice is indivisible, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King  concluded, a phrase that overrides the notion that we have to look out for our own needs in the next election, then perhaps later we might deal with genocide in Palestine.

“Cowardice asks the questions, is it safe; expediency asks the question, is it politic; vanity asks the question, is it popular, but conscious asks the question, is it right,” thus making it inevitable, he explained, that “on some positions, it is necessary for the moral individual to take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic nor popular; but he must do it because it is right.”

“History has already been written,” journalist Ramzy Baroud makes clear, “the spirit of the Palestinian people has won over Israel’s death machine.” This is the justice that Martin Luther King died for, the “true revolution” of the dispossessed in modern times.

By remembering King’s legacy as a crusader for justice everywhere, not just a dreamer of dreams, there is still time to stand on the right side of history, the side that he stood on himself.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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