The misunderstood class warrior Martin Luther King
by Sylvie Laurent
[This article published in 2018 is translated from the German on the Internet, Der verkannte Klassenkämpfer Martin Luther King.]
A few weeks ago, the voice of Martin Luther King unexpectedly resounded on US television during the break in the Superbowl. His speech "The Drum Major Instinct" provided the soundtrack to an advertisement for pickups. The spot, which featured a robust male SUV with a US flag, US soldiers and exemplary US families and underlined the whole thing with the voice of the black civil rights activist, left some people cold.
30 seconds of advertising time in the halftime break of the Superbowl final cost a good 5 million dollars. The fact that the high priests of mass consumption were allowed to use Baptist Pastor King's speech for their own purposes holds a special irony, because Martin Luther King, in the same speech of 4 February 1968, took his country's materialism to court a few paragraphs later. He ridiculed his fellow citizens who let themselves be seduced by the advertising to buy certain things in order to feel superior to others, or who only considered themselves to be fully-fledged human beings when they owned a certain car. They "show off their Cadillac," he railed, and they fueled an envious industry that was slowly but surely destroying America.
Today, 50 years after his assassination, Martin Luther King is more glorified than ever. In his honour, the conservative US President Ronald Reagan had already introduced a national holiday in 1983. The memory of the social revolutionary was politically instrumentalized, King was appropriated from all sides. But in order to tell the story of the reconciled nation, the dissident had to be erased from memory.
What remained was a patriot, a founding father, an extraordinary US American, who could only have been produced by an extraordinary country. A black man who dreamed of racial equality and rightly trusted that his countrymen would make it a reality. A man who served his country and recognized its unique democratic potential. On the pedestal of the monument inaugurated by Barack Obama in Washington in 2011 there is no reference to racism or racial segregation. On the capital's National Mall, where the great American is commemorated, visitors are better off remembering the dream King conjured up at the 1963 rally.
King is immortalized on stamps, above the portals of universities and schools, on the National Mall, in picture books, in nice stories to polish up the image of the USA abroad, in the White House - and in an advertisement for SUVs. That he was a critical mind is buried under the burden of official honors and commercial exploitation.
The rewriting of history began with the fact that the black revolution of the 1950s and 1960s was reduced to the demand for formal equality - as if the blacks in the southern states were solely concerned with the right to vote and an end to legal discrimination. In the end, they were fobbed off with a deceptive package in 1965: They tried to make them believe that with the end of legal discrimination, equality had already been achieved. King was dismayed by this sleight of hand.
The word equality had different meanings for black and white people, he wrote in 1967 in his last book.1 "Blacks assume that equality is to be understood literally, and they took white Americans at their word when they spoke of equality as a common goal. But for most whites in the America of 1967, even if they are of good will, equality is not much more than another word for improvement. White America is psychologically far from closing the gap - it is simply trying to make it less painful and obvious, but by and large it wants to preserve it."
For black Americans, as for Martin Luther King himself, civil rights have never been the final frontier. They also wanted social equality, redistribution of wealth and an end to the segregation that condemned blacks to unemployment, ghetto, police violence, unworthy wages, problem schools, exploitation and imperialism. King's ideas of emancipation thus went far beyond the problem of racism. Even if the blacks might be the absolutely underprivileged, the oppressed par excellence and the vanguard of the coming revolution, all the socially weak had to be liberated: poor whites, welfare recipients, plundered Indians, humiliated Hispanics. In his opinion, the true value of the country was measured by their ability to participate in democratic discourse or even to come to power.
His last battle was logically a campaign of the poor, the Poor People's Campaign, which in the spring of 1968 brought together the wretched of all regions and skin colors. In the end, they wanted to gather in the capital to demand a constitutional revolution: the adoption of a charter of basic economic rights for the "socially weak", a statutory minimum wage, the participation of welfare organizations in the legislative process, a massive redistribution of wealth, and state employment programs and social housing on an unprecedented scale. In February 1968, King mocked the people who speak of the "social hammock" when blacks receive public subsidies, and of "subsidies" when the already privileged whites are considered. In other words: "We have socialism for the rich and predatory capitalism for the poor!
Using subtle dialectics, he sought to overcome the contradiction between a class-struggle understanding of oppression (based on the assumption that all oppression will disappear with the collapse of capitalism) and an identity politics approach according to which each discriminated group must lead its own struggle - exploitation and discrimination are, after all, completely different things. For all those who took part in the Poor People's Campaign, there was no doubt that blacks and Latinos were disproportionately affected by exploitation. But for them this was the expression of a system of rule that also claimed many other victims.
During the campaign, the - mostly black - women in the National Welfare Rights Organization3 pointed out the close connection between the different forms of oppression, whether based on class, gender or race. Because these forms of oppression always intermingle and intertwine without any of the others being superior, the logical consequence for Martin Luther King was a call for solidarity; he spoke of "brotherhood". In an interview with the New York Times, he openly admitted that he was conducting a kind of class struggle. On 4 April 1968, one month before the "Poor People's March on Washington" he had organized, he was shot dead.
Part of the general memory of King, of course, is that he could sometimes become violent, especially when it came to Vietnam. It is said that towards the end of his life he radicalized himself, bitter and lonely as he was. The pastor, who was still unanimously praised in 1963 for his speech "I Have a Dream", lost many sympathies when his quiet reformism turned into anger. But this too is a falsification of history: First, King never had the US population behind him, not even when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The march on Washington the year before, which today is considered a national symbol of reconciliation, was supported by only a third of the Americans at that time. Even the progressive New Yorkers considered King to be "extremist" by a majority according to a poll in the New York Times on September 21, 1964, and felt that the demand for civil rights for blacks was "exaggerated". After all, he had not only made his uncomfortable convictions known towards the end of his life.
Already at the age of 23, after reading Marx and Gandhi, admiring the pacifist and socialist pastor Norman Thomas and discovering the social Christianity of a Reinhold Niebuhr, he formulated his criticism of an economic system that concentrates wealth in the hands of a few. In 1952 he wrote in a letter to his later wife Coretta: "Capitalism has had its day", and despite all objections to Marx he described himself as "socialist" in spirit.
King was a pessimist who had not given up hope. He painted a gloomy picture of his country: "As long as machines and computers, the pursuit of profit and property rights count more than people, the powerful triplets of materialism, militarism and racism cannot be defeated".4 He called for a profound transformation of society, a "revolution of values" in which white people must realize that true equality has its price. "It is time for the privileged to give something of their millions. Ending racial segregation in the South or giving us the right to vote has cost nothing. This time it is different", he declared in August 1967, "We must ask ourselves: 'Why are there 40 million poor people in America? And when you ask yourself that, you ask the question of the economic system and a broader distribution of wealth. And you're going to ask yourselves, "Whose oil is this?" and "Whose iron ore is this? "5
King thus made it clear that the politics of domination is not limited to the denial of the right to vote or racial segregation. Rather, he said, it was a matter of deliberately organized economic subjugation, for example by cramming the poor into ghettos and slums, by unemployment and unworthy wages, by the alleged "culture of poverty" or the good conscience of paternalistic reformers. Among the latter he counted in particular democrats and progressive city dwellers who stood up for equality, but only until the first blacks wanted to settle in their chic suburbs.
The cult around Martin Luther King ignores his criticism of US democracy and the systematic inequality in his country. King considered racism and imperialism to be birth defects of white America. In his view, the resistance against genuine equality could only be resolved by the disenfranchised and dissenting people defending themselves with civil disobedience and all revolutionary forces jointly inventing a new democratic idea.
The "politics of love" demanded by him was essentially peaceful, but it certainly sought confrontation. Non-violent direct actions were supposed to disturb public order and thus order in general, so that the weakest would finally have a say and thus become political subjects. Non-violent resistance did not mean rejection of anger, nor was it a Christian pose, but subversive refusal: suffering thus became the motor of political action. It did not make the tormentor uncomfortable, but everyone who watched.
After 1965 there were more black revolts that undermined the goal of non-violence, but King remained unyielding. However, he did not condemn the numerous ghetto uprisings between 1964 and 1968. He described violence as the "cry of those who no one else hears". The only way to end it was to fight unemployment, discrimination and police violence. The report of the independent Kerner Commission convened by the White House in 1967 confirmed this diagnosis. However, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was involved in the Vietnam War, let it disappear in a drawer. When his successor Richard Nixon took office nine months after King's assassination, the country demanded a return to order and the disciplining of the instigators and ingrates. And Nixon made the suggestion - which seemed cynical to the supporters of Martin Luther King - that instead of equal rights, a "black capitalism" should be put on the political agenda.
1 Martin Luther King, "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community", Boston (Beacon Press) 1967.
2 Martin Luther King, "To Minister to the Valley", speech on 23 February 1968 in Miami.
3 The "Organization for the Right to Welfare Assistance", founded in 1966, played an important role in the organization of King's Poor People's Campaign.
4 Martin Luther King, "Beyond Vietnam: A time to break silence", speech on 4 April 1967 in New York.
5 Martin Luther King, "Where do we go from here?", speech on 16 August 1967 in Atlanta.
Translated from the French by Nicola Liebert
Sylvie Laurent is a lecturer at Sciences Po University in Paris