This year, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 85-years-old. Since he embraced peace, practiced nonviolent resistance, and sought a loving society, for years the media has cast him as a sincere, avuncular, dreamy leader. This hardly comports with his essence or his fiercely tenacious battles—against war, racism and poverty—found in his writings, speeches, marches, and jail time.
King died because he was a radical thinker and activist whose movement challenged the powerful and made dangerous enemies. In 1964 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called him "the most notorious liar in the country." When he denounced the Vietnam War in 1967 the liberal New York Times and Washington Post roundly condemned him for questioning this part of America’s anti-communist crusade.
King's views were far from popular. The year of his death public opinion polls showed 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of African Americans disapproved of his opposition to the war and his campaign to eradicate poverty.
The King to celebrate united as many people as he could behind his radical plan for a peaceful world . . . and fought like a tiger. At New York City's Riverside Church a year before his death, King referred despairingly to the cost of American militarism and hopefully to revolutionary movements. He said Lyndon Johnson's war in Asia had "eviscerated" the War on Poverty "like some demonic, destructive suction tube."
"The madness of Vietnam is devastating the hopes of the poor at home" and will "totally poison America's society," said King. Urging withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, King added that "I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor." He called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," and began to unite Americans across lines of race, class, nationalities, and religion for a Poor People’s March on Washington.
King's bold stands increased the death threats while the FBI reduced his protection. While assisting striking Memphis garbage workers in April 1968 he was killed by a rifleman.
Soon after his death King was again targeted, this time by assassins in suits armed with laptops and enjoying media access. Their rewrite of the King story muted his strong voice and buried his radical proposals. And for the good reason—Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to today's injustices. In 1968 the U.S. had military bases all around the world, and now it has more. A government that invaded and bombed Southeast Asia, now has military footprints on Middle East soil.
Would King have greeted recent the U.S. interventions in the Middle East as steps toward peace? Would he have looked away from "enhanced" interrogations the world defined as torture, endorsed U.S. threats of air strikes against Iran, approved a "war on terror" that terrorizes civilian populations, and justified occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan that never end? Would he have approved of U.S. drone strikes?
The King who told us the people of Vietnam "must see Americans as strange liberators,"—what would he tell us about U.S. foreign occupations today?
When he denounced war, poverty, and injustice. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke for "the shirtless and barefooted people of the land." Poor Americans and distant people “who languish under our bombs and consider us . . . the real enemy." Is this voice not worth listening to today?
Get to know the real Dr. King. Listen to his 1967 speech at Riverside Church.
William Loren Katz is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, and forty other books on African American history. You can find more essays and a list of books by Katz at http://williamlkatz.com