The first thing one typically thinks of when one hears the name Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is “champion of civil rights.” He was perhaps the most influential leader in the struggle for black civil rights from the mid 50’s until his assassination on April 4, 1968 (Martin 47). Today he is honored with a national holiday and a statue in Washington D.C. Schools and streets bear his name all across the country. Although the fight for racial equality is paramount to his legacy and can never be overshadowed, racism is but one of what Dr. King described as the “triple evils.” The other two being poverty and militarism (King Radical King 75).
On April 4, 1967, Dr. King gave a speech at Riverside Church in New York City entitled, “Beyond Vietnam.” In the speech, Dr. King denounces the Vietnam War and declares the United States of America to be, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” (204). Many of the other black civil rights leaders, as well as the NAACP, heavily criticized him for his stance on Vietnam, fearing alienation from the Democratic administration (Lucks 398). To these critics, King answered, “What you are saying may get you a foundation grant, but it won’t get you into the kingdom of truth” (Lewis 358). 168 newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, ran negative stories about King’s, “Beyond Vietnam” speech the very next day (Smilely)( Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute). Dr. King risked everything to take on what he saw as a necessary moral stand against militarism. It would cost him popularity; 72% of whites and 55% of blacks disapproved of his opposition to the war in Vietnam (King Radical King ix). It would also cost him his access to the White House as Lyndon Johnson was reported to have said, “What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me?” in response to the speech at Riverside church (Sitkoff 207).
Dr. King also pointed to the moral or spiritual bankruptcy of a society that continues to spend more on military than, “programs of social uplift” (King Radical King 215). In a 1968 speech in Los Angeles, Dr. King points out that the fiscal cost to the nation to integrate lunch counters and guarantee blacks the vote was nothing. However, ending economic inequality would, as Dr. King put it, “not be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power” (King Martin Luther King, Jr. on Income Inequality). Dr. King, years earlier, had planted the seed for an economic justice campaign. In a 1965 article King wrote for the Saturday Evening Post he called for a “grand alliance” between white, black, and indeed all working people (King “Negroes Are” 8-10). A unification of these forces was what Dr. King saw as the only way to gain dignity and justice for working people in America. Dr. King foresaw that worsening economic inequality would escalate racial tensions in the country as he would write in a 1966 article (Jelani).
Watch first 2 minutes (Below)
In the last years of his life Dr. King launched the “Poor Peoples Campaign.” The campaign promised to fight for all working people and against those forces who wished to exploit the worker (Jelani). Dr. King planned a demonstration that would, “confront the power structure massively.” The occupation of a strip of land in Washington D.C. was planned (Cave). Dr. King, however, was murdered just weeks before the protest was set to take place. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, along with Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, decided to go ahead with the protest as planned. On May 13, 1968, an encampment was set up near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The encampment was dubbed “Resurrection City.” The protesters, despite being smeared in the media by papers like The Washington Post, held out for around six weeks (Cave). Their eviction by riot police on June 25, 1968, signaled the end of the Poor People’s Movement (Hamilton 4-10).
Attempts to limit or distort King’s legacy is what Dr. Cornel West calls the “Santa Claus-ification” of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Sirota). Carl Wendell Hines Jr. in his 1971 poem entitled “A Dead Man’s Dream” refers to this as making Dr. King a “convenient hero” (Hines). Beginning in 1957, the U.S. government began the covert surveillance of Dr. King. Surveillance that would last all the way until his murder; including illegal wire-tapping, burglaries, hidden tape-recorders, and threating letters and phone calls. The mission was to capture anything derogatory and leak it to the press. The goal was to smear Dr. King and discredit the movement itself (Coben 703) (Boykoff 741- 44). Herbert Hoover, head of the FBI, called him “the most notorious liar in the country” (Martin Luther King, Jr. Research FBI).
The very government who once also called him “the most dangerous man in America” is now making attempts to manipulate King’s legacy. Statues, schools, and streets are dedicated in Dr. King’s name. Streets that in most cases are a stark example of the poverty Dr. King fought to try and abolish (Varagur) (Peters). On MLK Day, 2013, the U.S. Marine Corps tweeted out a quote of Dr. King that read, “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” (Greenwald). This was a clear attempt to make a Nobel Peace Prize winning, non-violent advocating, Baptist minister somehow favor war. In 2011, at the Pentagon’s Commemoration of Kings Legacy, Jeh C. Johnson, the U.S. Defense Department’s general counsel professed that Dr. King would approve of the U.S. militaries actions around the world today (Elliot).
Corporations have also actively distorted the legacy of Dr. King to serve monetary interests. Dodge trucks recently ran a commercial during Super Bowl LII featuring images that included Marines marching and trucks driving through mud. The commercial uses a section of Dr. King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon as its soundtrack (Official Ram Trucks Super Bowl Commercial). The actual sermon was given at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968. The part of the sermon left out of the commercial were lines in which Dr. King critiques corporate advertiser’s attempts to make people feel as though they must buy things they don’t need and cannot afford. He specifically refers to automobile advertiser’s attempt to convince people that in his words, “I got to drive this car, because there’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than neighbors car” (King Radical King 255).
Original Dodge Comercial(Below)
Unofficial commercial remade with missing parts of “Drum Major Instinct “Speech (Below)
This brazen and ironic example is just the latest in a long line of attempts to give both products and political ideologies credibility by associating them with Dr. King’s legacy. These techniques are used in the attempt to dull his sharp, radical critique of capitalism and militarism in order to insure these institutions survival. In 2017, the top 0.1% of households in America possessed as much wealth as the bottom 90% (Holodny). This, while the Senate, with bipartisan support, recently approved an $80 billion dollar per year increase in the defense budget. This gives the U.S. a larger military budget than the next ten largest countries in the world combined. This increase alone is enough to send the entire nation to college for free (Emmons). It’s hard to conclude that Dr. King’s warnings about militarism and economic inequality haven’t been sanitized, or that his warnings have been adequately heeded.
Boykoff, Jules. “J. Edgar Hoover.” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 39.4 (2007): 729-756.
Cave, Damien and Darcy Eveleigh. In 1968, a “Resurrection City” of Tents, Erected to Fight Poverty. 18 February 2017. The New York Times. March 2018. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/18/us/martin-luther-king-resurrection-city.html>.
Coben, Stanley. “J. Edgar Hoover.” Journal of Social History 34.3 (2001): 703-706.
Elliot, Justin. Obama Official: MLK Would Love Our Wars. 13 January 2011. Inc. Salon Media Group. March 2018. <https://www.salon.com/search?q=Obama+Official%3A+MLK+Would+Love+Our+Wars.
Emmons, Alex. The Senate’s Military Spending Is Enough to Make College Free. 18 September 2017. First Look Media. March 2018. <https://theintercept.com/2017/09/18/the-senates-military-spending-increase-alone-is-enough-to-make-public-college-free/>.
Greenwald, Glenn. US military says Martin Luther King would be proud of its weapons. 22 January 2013. Guardian Media Group. March 2018. <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/22/martin-luther-king-military-weapons>.
Hamilton, Rober. “Did the dream end there? Adult ducation and Resurrection City 1968.” National Institute of Adult Continuing Education 45.1 (2013): 4-26.
Hines, Jr., Carl Wendall. A Dead Man’s Dream. 1971. Poem du Jour. March 2018. <http://www.poemdujour.com/deadmanHines.html>.
Holodny, Elena. The Top 0.1% of American Households Hold the Same Amount of Wealth As the Bottom 90%. 17 October 2017. Inc. Business Insider. March 2018. <businessinsider.com/americas-top-01-households-hold-same-amount-of-wealth-as-bottom-90-2017-10>.
Jilani, Zaid. Dr. King Wanted “Grand Alliance” of Blacks and Whites to Build Economic Justice. 19 August 2015. AlterNet. March 2018. <https://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/dr-king-wanted-grand-alliance-blacks-and-whites-build-economic-justice>.
King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Income Inequality and Redistribution of Wealth + James Baldwin. 20 January 2014. You Tube. 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hgwtd4X_qFM&t=123s>.
—. “Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast.” Saturday Evening Post 7 November 1964: 8-11.
—. The Radical King. Ed. Dr. Cornel West. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015.
Lewis, David Levering. King: A Biography. Urbana/Chicago/Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2013.
Lucks, Daniel S. “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Riverside Speech and Cold War Civil Rights.” Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research 40.3 (2015): 395-422.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle: Beyond Vietnam. n.d. The King Institute. March 2018. <http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_beyond_vietnam_4_april_1967.1.html>.
Martin, Sandy D. “King and Interfaith Dialogue.” Journal of Religious Thought 48.2 (Winter 1991/Spring 1992): 34-48.
Official Ram Trucks Super Bowl Commercial | Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. | Built to Serve. 4 February 2018. Ford Motor Company Ram Trucks. March 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlbY1tGARUA>.
Peters, Adele. What’s Life Like Today On The Streets Named After Martin Luther King? Would Dr. King be happy with what life is like on the streets named after him? After his death, cities around the country named streets after Martin Luther King. Here’s what th. 18 January 2016. Fast Company. March 2018. <https://www.fastcompany.com/3055536/all-the-streets-named-after-martin-luther-king-in-photographs>.
Sitkoff, Harvard. Toward Freedom Land: The Long Struggle for Racial Equality in America. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2010.
Smilely, Tavis. “The Story of King’s “Beyond Vietnam Speech”.” Talk of the Nation. Neal Conan. National Public Radio, 30 March 2010.
Varagur, Rithika. Streets Named MLK Are Ofter a Punch Line, but That Can Change. 18 January 2016. Huffington Post. March 2018. <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/streets-named-for-mlk-are-often-a-punch-line-but-that-can-change_us_568a9148e4b014efe0daf120>.