On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, it is hard to think of anyone whose legacy has been so misrepresented as that of Martin Luther King Jr.
John Wight has written for newspapers and websites across the world, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal. He is also a regular commentator on RT and BBC Radio. John is currently working on a book exploring the role of the West in the Arab Spring. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnWight1
Martin Luther King (MLK) dedicated his life to the pursuit of truth regardless of the consequences, personal or political. Thus, at the time of his murder at the hands of a white supremacist on April 4, 1968 in the city of Memphis, where he had arrived to lead a march of the city's sanitation workers over pay and conditions, King found himself an isolated figure.
Indeed, in an uncanny example of a death foretold, on the eve of his assassination, at the end of both the last and one of the most famous speeches he ever gave, the black civil rights leader proclaimed, "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
King, by now, had alienated many of his white liberal champions and supporters in Washington, and also many of his friends and followers within the black civil rights movement, over his vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam. Meanwhile, his refusal to budge from the principal of non-violence when it came to the struggle for racial justice and equality had shed him support within the wider black civil rights movement among a young generation of activists whose anger and frustration at the lack of progress when it came to achieving justice for black people was at the breaking point.
King biographer James H. Cone writes that King's "sermons [opposing Vietnam] were delivered against the advice of many of his friends and followers… who told him to keep silent about the war because he was alienating President Johnson and [the movement's] financial supporters." No matter, Cone elaborates, because King "could not overlook [America's] great contradictions of racism, poverty, and militarism."
In the five decades that have elapsed since Martin Luther King's assassination, those same contradictions have, rather than lessen or move an inch towards being overcome, sharpened to the point where America has been pitched into seemingly terminal decline – at war with itself at home and struggling to deal with a world it is no longer able to dominate, and which is no longer willing to be dominated. "It [America] can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over," King declared in one of his most famous speeches, 'Beyond Vietnam,' which was delivered in 1967 – a year to the day in advance of his assassination.
Surveying the world today, who could possibly refute that the "deepest hopes of men" across the planet have indeed been destroyed by dint of the juggernaut that is US imperialism? Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya – destroyed; justice for a Palestinian people suffering under the iron heel of apartheid and occupation – blocked; the Global South locked inside an inescapable prison of under-development, courtesy of free market fanaticism dressed up as freedom and democracy. These are the fruits of US hegemony, an empire sustained by an insatiable appetite for human suffering and despair.
It is why the chorus of US establishment voices that never miss an opportunity to spout insincere platitudes whenever Martin Luther King's name is raised or his legacy commemorated, are swimming in hypocrisy.
Chief among them are liberals who wear the cause of racial equality in America like a badge, while in practice ensuring it remains the dream that King embraced from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on that hot August day in 1963 in his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech. Here, for example, speaketh former US President Bill Clinton: "We should all thank God for Dr. King and John Lewis and all those who gave us a dream to guide us, a dream they paid for, like our founders, with their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor."
Powerful words, dripping in cliché, which ring hollow from a man who in 1994 introduced into law via the US Congress the country's infamous omnibus crime bill. This he did with the fulsome support of his wife, Hillary, to usher in mass incarceration, which in the years since has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on black communities across America. Of Clinton's presidency and on the legacy of the crime bill he brought into law, journalist and author Thomas Frank writes, "The former president made sure low-level drug users felt the full weight of state power at the same moment bankers saw the shackles that bound them removed."
Oh, by the way, speaking of Hillary, here she is in 2008, revealing her reaction to the news of King's assassination, when she was a young college student: "I walked into my room, and hurled my bag across the room like everything had been destroyed." Theatrics aside, a rather better reaction, I'm sure you will agree, than the one she displayed at the news of the foul murder of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, when the then-secretary of state clapped her hands with glee and intoned, "We came, we saw, he died."
Though the Clintons may constitute a particularly noxious example of the opportunism and hypocrisy that is the beating heart of the liberal political tradition in the land of the free, a still more egregious example comes in the personage of Barack Obama. Here, I must give way to Cornel West: "We see the richest prophetic tradition in America desecrated in the name of a neoliberal worldview, a worldview King would be in direct opposition to. Martin [Luther King] would be against Obama because of his neglect of the poor and the working class and because of the drones, because he is a war president, because he draws up kill lists. And Martin [Luther] King would have nothing to do with that."
On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of a man whose struggle for racial equality had by the time he was killed evolved into a struggle for social and economic justice for poor sanitation workers in cities like Memphis, and an end to the slaughter of poor people overseas, Martin Luther King's legacy will be fawned over by champions and beneficiaries of a Washington establishment that he had come to realize was the obstacle to justice in America rather than its enabler.
In 2018, the constituency King spent his adult life fighting for – America's poor, racially oppressed, and dispossessed – is not to be found in the palatial homes and state rooms of the rich and powerful, people adept at extrapolating selective quotes from King's speeches and inserting them in theirs. The constituency Martin Luther King represented and identified with is, in 2018, languishing within the country's vast prison network, home to over 2.2 million predominately young men of color. Consider for a moment the thoughts of US playwright August Wilson: "The most valuable blacks are those in prisons, those who have the warrior spirit, who had a sense of being African… The greatest spirit of resistance among blacks [is] found among those in prison."
The reality, one inescapable, is that five decades after an assassin's bullet ended his life on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Martin Luther King's dream of racial equality in America died with him. And when it comes to an accurate rendering of his legacy, we are obligated to ponder a hypothetical – namely that if alive today, King would be outside protesting the crimes of the politicians and former presidents at the fancy dinners and commemoration events being held in his honor.
Like this story? Share it with a friend!
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.