Water Man Spouts

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

" I thought I had to say something. I don’t know if ‘careful thinking’ would have caused me to revise the speech. I was politically unwise, but morally wise. I think I have a role to play that may be unpopular. I really that someone of influence has to say that the United States is wrong, and everybody is afraid to say it. What I did was go beyond the point that anybody has done who is of influence. I have just become so disgusted with the way people of America are being brainwashed by the administration."
--Martin Luther King, Jr., to Stanley Levison; April 5, 1967; FBI tape 100-106670-2877; Book III, Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities; US Senate

{1} As we approach the 40th anniversary of the death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, it seems appropriate that the nation is involved in a discussion involving issues including race relations, the connection between racism and US foreign policy, the relationship between that foreign policy and the US economy, government spying on citizens, and the often stressful marriage of religion and politics in our society.

Many of us old enough to remember the role Martin played in the civil rights movement are encouraged by the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama. His speech on March 18 was compared to King’s "I Have a Dream" message to America in 1963. I was not surprised by the reaction of some people who said that Obama does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as King. This is because, I believe, our nation has yet to fully understand who Martin Luther King, Jr., really was.

Charles Willie, who was a college classmate of Martin’s, has noted that, "By idolizing those we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity – his personal and public struggles – that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise."

That concept was further examined by Diane Nash, who said, "If people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement, then today they – young people – are more likely to say, ‘Gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us.’ If people knew how that movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is, ‘What can I do?’" (David Garrow; Bearing the Cross; 1986; page 625.)

"I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream today, that in all of our state houses and city halls men will be elected to go there who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God. I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, neither will they study war any more. I still have a dream today that one day the lamb and the lion will lie down together and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. I still have a dream today that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low, the rough places will be made smooth and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."
--Martin Luther King, Jr.; The Trumpet of Conscience; 1967

The media tends to focus exclusively on King’s civil rights efforts during the annual holiday. Little mention is made of his efforts to combine the civil rights and anti-war efforts. The above quote, taken from the collection of sermons that comprise the 96-page book, shows that his anti-war sermons were closely related to even his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The sermons and lectures from the book are included in "A Testament of Hope,"1986, the editor notes that Americans "considered his stance to be anti-American and thoroughly irresponsible. Many of his closest ‘friends’ deserted him. His stance, however, proved to be prophetic." (page 634)

The five sentences that make that paragraph also show the influence of the prophets of old. Let’s look at their connections: (1) This is from Amos 5:24; (2) Micah 6:8; (3) Isaiah 2:4; (4) Isaiah 11:6 and Micah 4:4; and (5) Isaiah 40: 4-5.

In fact, the majority of Martin’s speeches, sermons, and writings bring the message of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah to the civil rights and anti-war movements. King was influenced in his understanding of the role of religion in politics while in college. Two professors in particular had introduced Martin to two theologians, Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr, who believed that religion could play an important role in American society.

Both Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) and Niebuhr (1892-1971) were of the post-Darwin era, when scientific realities moved the creation story of the bible from a literal interpretation to mythology. This, of course, allows thinking people to re-evaluate the ministry of Jesus. Rauschenbusch was one of the originators of what evolved into "liberation theology." He viewed mainstream Christianity as erring in its focus on ritual and individual sin vs salvation, rather than the social justice demanded by the prophets, including Jesus.

Rather than dying to redeem individuals’ "sins," Rauschenbusch believed that the cross symbolized the shortcomings of society. Those shortcomings included the church being compromised by its connection with the rich and powerful, rather than serving as the advocate for the poor and downtrodden. He believed that the "kingdom of heaven" was a goal that could be accessed by the evolution of human consciousness on earth, as defined by the sermon on the mount.

Niebuhr took a similar position, though he concluded that human nature predisposed people to behaviors that were stumbling blocks to reaching that "kingdom of heaven." His views were different in large part because he had, like Rauschenbusch, experienced not only WW1 – the "war to end all wars" – but because he saw the horrors of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and WW2. He believed that true Christian consciousness demanded opposition to the forces of human evil.

King’s college writings, which were closely examined by US intelligence agencies, show a young man who begins to question the capitalist economic system of the country. The genesis of his social ministry is found in the papers he wrote as a student, and those forces who opposed King – including FBI Director J Edgar Hoover – were upset by King’s ability to communicate these beliefs to not only the civil rights movement, but to the "New Left" when he started to speak out against the Vietnam War in 1967.

"There were times – especially when the criticisms came against him on his Vietnam position – that he naturally would begin to evaluate ….his whole image and just what people thought of him in terms of his leadership, whether or not he could continue to be an effective leader."
--Coretta King (Garrow; page 711)

{3} In his evolving civil rights ministry, King was influenced by many "non-Christian" sources, including Gandhi and a number of non-religious "humanist" philosophers. One of the most influential thinkers of the era was Erich Fromm, who believed that "progress can only occur when changes are made simultaneously in the economic, socio-political and cultural spheres; that any progress restricted to one sphere is destructive to progress in all spheres." This quote, from the foreword of his 1955 "The Sane Society," is part of one of the most interesting examinations of the pathologies of modern society. Fromm believed that in an "insane society," those who were actually "healthy" would be viewed as "maladjusted." King began to see that his ministry would be viewed as "maladjusted," first by those religious leaders who opposed his civil rights efforts, and then by the larger society when he combined the civil rights and anti-war movement. (See chapter 5 of "Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind; John Ansbro; 1982)

On March 29, 1967, King went to Louisville for a Southern Christen Leadership Conference board meeting. He met with heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who was involved in a struggle with Uncle Sam over the draft. Years later, it would be revealed that the FBI was monitoring King’s telephone conversations with Ali, in which Martin expressed support for Muhammad’s conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

The next day, King told a New York Times reporter that he believed "it is necessary to stand up against the war in Vietnam."

On Tuesday, April 4, 1967, Martin delivered his revolutionary "A Time to Break Silence" (aka "Beyond Vietnam") speech at the Riverside Church in New York City. In it, he called the United States government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," and stated that the war in Vietnam was "but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit." King called on all young American men being drafted to declare themselves conscientious objectors to the war, and attacked the military industrial complex, declaring that, "If we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society."

"(King) has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies ….and …an even greater injury to himself. Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people. And that is the great tragedy."
--The Washington Post; April 5, 1967

{4} The response to King’s speech was severe. The Pittsburgh Courier claimed Martin was "tragically misleading" his followers; the New York Times called him "reckless"; and Life magazine referred to his speech as "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." Newsweek magazine claimed King was guilty of "simplistic political judgement" that indicated he was in "over his head."

Carl Rowan, Ralph Bunche, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkens, Jackie Robinson, and Senator Whitney Young all publicly disagreed with King. Years later, Martin’s closest associates noted that not only had the rejection hurt him, but that he became depressed and distant after the speech. Ralph Abernathy described his last year of life as a "lonely" time, even when surrounded by friends.

Garrow notes that "the Johnson White House and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI …evaluation was far more negative. Presidential advisor John P. Roche told Johnson that King, ‘who is inordinately ambitious and quite stupid,’ had ‘thrown in with the commies’ because he was ‘in desperate search of a constituency.’ The ‘Communist-oriented "peace" types,’ Roche alleged, ‘have played him (and his driving wife) like trout..’ ….. The FBI interpreted the latest turn of events even more seriously, as Hoover explained in a private communication to Lyndon Johnson. ‘Based on King’s recent activities and public utterances, it is clear that he is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation’." (Garrow; pages 554-555)

The government surveillance on King increased significantly after the Riverside address. The FBI found that the "New Left" was supporting a proposal by Dr. William Pepper to have King run for president along with anti-war activist Dr. Benjamin Spock. (Garrow; pages 557-558)

Martin also began to plan the "Poor People’s Campaign," in which he would create a "tent city" in Washington, DC, to bring attention to the plight of the poor in America. Pepper’s 1995 book "Orders to Kill" details how the concerns expressed by Hoover about the "threat" that King posed lead to US military intelligence keeping a close eye on his every move. In fact, congressional investigations in the mid-1970s showed that military intelligence was engaged in surveillance on King in Memphis in April of 1968.

"For maximum effectiveness of the Counterintelligence Program, and to prevent wasted effort, long-range goals are being set. …. Prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement. Malcolm X might have been such a ‘messiah’; he is the martyr of the movement today. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammad all aspire to this position. Elijah Muhammad is less of a threat because of his age. King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence) and embrace black nationalism …."
--FBI memorandum; March 4, 1968

{5} In 1968, King was planning the Poor People’s Campaign. He needed funding from liberal institutions in order to accomplish this and continue with other SCLS activities. Part of his organizing included attending a "Ministers Leadership Training Program" sponsored by the Ford Foundation in Miami. Among the presenters was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the author of a controversial report on black families. Although Martin agreed with much of what Moynihan had to say, others did not. Moynihan would report to Ford president McGeorge Bundy that it was "the first time I have ever found myself in an atmosphere so suffused with near madness … The leadership of the meeting was in the hands of near demented Black militants who consistently stated one untruth after another (about me,about the United States, about the President, about history, etc, etc) without a single voice being raised in objection. King, Abernathy and Young sat there throughout, utterly unwilling (at least with me present) to say a word in support of non-violene, integration, or peaceableness." (Garrow; 598-599)

On March 29, 1968, as the Poor People’s Campaign loomed closer, Senator Robert Byrd took to the Senate floor to attack King. "Mr. President, we have been hearing for months now that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been planning a march on Washington and a ‘civil disobedience campaign’ in the Nation’s Capital in April. …. If this self-seeking rabble-rouser is allowed to go through with his plan here, Washington may well be treated to the same kind of violence, destruction, looting, and bloodshed. … This man, who suffers from the delusion that only his eyes have the divine insight to detect what is wrong in our country, claims he wants to dramatize the plight of the poor. … This will be no spontaneous demonstration, Mr. President, no grassroots movement. This task force he wants to bring here, by King’s own admission, must be recruited and ‘trained.’ Some of the recruits, it is said, will come from cities that went up in flames last summer. One can only assume that they will be riot-hardened veterans. One can properly ask, I think: What sort of ‘training’ are they now being given? Why, Mr. President, do citizens, if their cause and their grievances are just, have to be trained? It seems to me that there is something sinister here. … King lovingly breaks the law, like a boa constrictor. He crushes the life from it. … The English language is like putty in King’s hands, but his incantations are loaded with hidden land mines."

He then called upon the federal government to take action to prevent Martin Luther King, Jr., from proceeding with the Poor People’s Campaign.

It is hard to believe it has been 40 years. Thank you, Martin.


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