Muzzling Dr. King
The annual public ritual of rendering homage to Martin Luther King Jr., the man, while obfuscating - if not actively betraying - his message, is de rigueur for elected officials, with or without the gospel choirs. Once a year, these officials issue their compulsory paeans to Dr. King's legacy, or to what passes for his legacy these days. Their homilies secure that legacy firmly within the civil rights realm - King's later writings and speeches are not exactly on the tips of their tongues.
The muzzling of Dr. King began well before his assassination, when he had begun to talk about the connections between racism and poverty, on the one hand, and capitalism and militarism, on the other. The expansion of King's focus from civil rights to what he called "the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism" was not welcome. In his first major address against the Vietnam war at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, a year to the day before he was killed, he said, "many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. ... Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. ... such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling."
True to form, then, it was business as usual at the city's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast on Monday, with elected officials reducing Dr. King's radical message to the usual platitudes about service to others - helping your neighbors with the snow shoveling, that sort of thing. Playing the "good Samaritan on life’s roadside" is fine for starters, King said, but “we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. ... an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth." Oops. Sound familiar? Wasn’t there something like that going on this fall?
So we have Mayor Thomas Menino saying he's "proud that Dr. King's personal history is rooted in our city" - though the Mayor wasn't particularly pleased when #Occupy Boston took Dr. King's message seriously. We like the man, all right? We just don’t like all this non-violent civil disobedience and First Amendment rights stuff.
Governor Deval Patrick, for his part, urged attendees to follow King's example by writing letters to soldiers serving in the U.S. military abroad. Really? Don’t get me wrong, it's fine to write letters to people who - due to their patriotism, financial need, or some combination of both - are getting killed and maimed by the greatest expansion of imperial power in U.S. history, presided over by the nation's first black president, no less. But to ask this of kids in the name of Martin Luther King, without mentioning King's condemnation of imperialist wars, is an active betrayal of his legacy.
"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 in 1967. Let’s see: how many wars is the U.S. waging in 2012? It was reported last August that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries – with a likely expansion to 120 countries by the end of 2011. The National Priorities Project estimates that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone have cost Massachusetts residents over $39 billion dollars, and counting.
A time comes when silence is betrayal. These aren’t my words, they’re the words of the executive committee of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, quoted by Dr. King in his Riverside Church address. The deafening silence of our politicians with respect to King’s true legacy is a betrayal, too.
Amy Grunder is Acting Managing Editor of Open Media Boston