“In What Direction Would Dr. King
Be Leading His Followers Today?”
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967
Before one can even ask who Dr. King would be leading, we must first ask, would there even be a movement today for him to lead? The old Civil Rights Movement is no longer in existence because most of its goals and objectives appear to have been realized. Racist laws have been removed; blacks now freely vote and hold elected office; schools are seemingly desegregated; people-of-color are now used extensively in advertising, commercials, and marketing; racial and ethnic integration has almost been achieved in motion pictures, television, and on the radio.
Dr. King would be 82 today. Around the same age as Bishop Tutu at 79, or Jimmy Carter at 87, but still younger than Mandela who is 93. Where then, would the constituency come from for Dr. King to lead today? Those who are one step out of poverty quickly forget. With their high-paying jobs and fine homes, this relatively privileged group often feels threatened by the demands of others who are still powerless, regardless of their color or ethnicity.
Although the most famous and most quoted speech of Dr. King is the “I have a Dream Speech”, his most controversial, least quoted, and some think most important, was the “Riverside Speech.” By 1967, King had become the country's most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his "Beyond Vietnam" speech delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 -- a year to the day before he was murdered -- King called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Time magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi," and the Washington Post declared that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
Dr. King said in his speech: “A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.” Further on in the speech he said, “So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
This sounds similar to voices today that say that the present government is wasting billions abroad while cutting critical domestic programs in every state and county nationwide. Anti-Americanism is at an all-time high and our militarism is helping those who are recruiting soldiers to destroy the United States and its allies. American citizens have been desensitized by a media, mainly television and hate radio that has created an extreme nationalism under the pretext of patriotism.
Even before the death of Dr. King the Civil Rights Movement was coming to an end. Dr. King and many others were pushed out of “the Movement” in the mid-sixties with the rise of Black Power and the move from integration to separation and multiculturalism. Dr. King was called an Uncle Tom and was disrespected nationwide. Julian Bond, Andy Young, myself, and thousands of others were told to get out of the poverty programs working in the Deep South.
On October 10, 1980 Mrs. King opened the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta. At that time I was working out of Atlanta as the Georgia State Program Director for the National Conference of Christians & Jews (NCCJ). I was also a free-lance writer for Atlanta Magazine.
One day, in the early Fall of 1981, as I was in the midst of going over some research in her office Mrs. King asked me to work with her for the opening program of the King Center. I felt honored when she asked me to conduct the first workshop on where Martin would be leading the movement if he were alive. In preparing for this assignment I read the last few speeches of Dr. King, and I also read the last speeches of Malcolm X. Dr. King and Malcolm X were coming closer together in their world views. Malcolm was becoming less radical while Dr. King was becoming more critical of the foreign policy of the country. I also read The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler, which I was sure Dr. King would have read. I suggested at the workshop that Dr. King would have gotten from Toffler the belief that Industrialism was the greatest threat to mankind, not racism. Nowadays, the Pope and many others call that same worldwide threat consumerism and materialism.
We now have over 2,000,000 people in prison, mainly because of a “War on Drugs and its imprisonment of a generation of non-white youth. The dropout rate in high schools located in lower-income neighborhoods is near 50%, and the dropout rate in many community colleges nation-wide is over 90% for black males and over 70% for black females! The unemployment rate at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where I took a class of college students for a week this summer, is over 80%.
Aware of the depressing realities facing the nation and the world, what do we think Dr. King would be saying today? He would most likely be very opposed to our costly invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Today he would be accused of treason for his pacifism, and be threatened with aiding terrorists and possibly arrested under the new draconian Homeland Security laws.
What would be Dr. King’s reaction to the $700,000,000,000 bailout to the banks, car companies, and insurance companies without credible record keeping? He would probably organize demonstrations for a bailout for the 40,000,000 without health insurance, or the 5,000,000 who are unemployed, or the millions of underemployed, or the hundreds of thousands of college students who will be burdened for decades with twenty to one hundred thousand dollar plus loans, plus interest, that have replaced grants and scholarships since his passing.
What would he do for the countless thousands of unemployable, semi-literate youth being pushed out of our inefficient high schools? What would he say of a possible relationship between the collapse of the worldwide economy and the obscene increase in profits of the oil companies and corporate executives?
How much would Dr. King support or oppose the military policies of the new administration of President Obama? Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting the number of colonies; Today it’s done by counting the number of military bases outside the country.
Would Dr. King be pushing organizations like CORE, SCLC, and the NAACP to shift its energies from such meaningless activities as devoting an entire national convention getting worldwide publicity for a parade and funeral for “The N Word?” He might say they seem to be more concerned about political correctness (PC) than getting out and fighting to help the poor and hopeless nation-wide, regardless of ethnicity or color.
He would welcome the election of Barack Obama, the rise of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and a black on the Supreme Court as signs of people being recognized for their accomplishments and intelligence instead of their color. The same would be said for people-of-color who have risen to be the heads of major corporations, educational institutions, and government agencies.
Education and lifestyle are now being seen by some as more important than ethnicity and race in the twenty-first century. As Cornell Belcher, a pollster, recently stated, “The thing is, a black man can’t be president of America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there. However, an ex-traordinary gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.” We seem to be a few steps closer to recognizing people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But we aren’t there yet.
Meanwhile, the number of people in the lower or under-classes has increased. Just as all social movements need a powerful force to oppose, Dr. King today would still be fighting against the powerful forces that are oppressing and exploiting the poor today. He would be championing the plight of the homeless whose numbers keep growing while programs to assist them shrink. If Dr. King were with us today he would probably be more interested in reducing economic exploitation, materialism and militarism than racial discrimination.
Perhaps Dr. King would try to become the leader of a new international pro-peace movement? What has happened since 1968 is a steady and unsurprising decline in the left’s overall political confidence and ambition. Anti-war groups recognize that times have changed. Their role does not seem to be to mobilize, but to engage in education and outreach. But how do we support our government in an illegal and immoral war?
Let me share with you some prophetic words from Dr. King’s speech at Riverside Church:
“We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace and justice throughout the developing world -- a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”
We will always have a choice to become involved in efforts to help others who are less fortunate than ourselves, or to do nothing. Today, in an atmosphere of apprehension about employment and financial security, coupled with the Omni-presence of a national surveillance system that can track a person to within a quarter of an inch, to a device we willingly carry with us everywhere, the GPS in every cell phone. Big Brother would be envious of the hypnotic power of the wall-sized, soon to be 3D, life-like televisions now being used to condition our children and adults to worship Materialism instead of any spiritual or religious belief.
Dr. King would be greatly challenged today to ignite the passion of indignation and concern that he awakened 40 years ago. Would he succeed? If Dr. King were here today he would be pleading for you to follow him again in an essential struggle to uplift humanity, and to defeat the masters of greed! Would you follow him today in a boycott of the US companies who are the major manufacturers of OUR WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION?
We here in Vermont can also mobilize and show our support for a peaceful settlement in Gaza, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Instead of waiting around for Dr. King to lead us, perhaps we'd better wake up and realize that nobody is going to save us if we don't have the vision, courage, and determination to become the change agents these times demand. Now is the time to organize and show the new administration that Vermonters are again in the forefront in fighting for improvements in health care, education, and the economy.
Will love and non-violence ever triumph again over hate and aggression? We are the only ones who can answer this question. As my mentor Frederick Douglas said: “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet decline agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.” If Dr. King asked you today to move from your comfort zone to attack the evils of globalization what would be your response? Each of us knows what needs to be done. The question is, would you have the vision, the integrity, the humility, and the courage to do the right thing?