Let’s listen not just to Luther King’s dream speech but to all his ideas
Opinion: Civil rights leader called for ‘eternal opposition’ to poverty, racism and militarism
Martin Luther King: in 1967 Time magazine passed a more severe, and perhaps racist, judgment on him than it had 10 years previously. Photograph: PA
There is a statue of Martin Luther King on the National Mall in Washington. He is the only non-president to have been accorded this monumental honour. The statue stands between those of Lincoln and Jefferson: at 28ft, it is 10ft higher than either. King is either the most looked-up-to man in America or somebody whose memory must be mollified, whatever it takes.
There were speeches by Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter at the same spot yesterday, and a ringing of bells across the land at 3pm, 50 years to the minute after the end of the I Have a Dream speech. A mighty effort put in to elevate King above all controversy while fixing him securely in time and place.
All that had gone before in his life led up to that moment. Nothing that happened afterwards could compare. We can estimate his achievement by measuring the extent to which the dream of racial justice which he sang of then has since became real. A lot done, a lot more to do, seems the general verdict. Except that that’s not it at all.
Most accounts of King’s life move directly from the Washington speech to his assassination in Memphis in April 1968. The missing years contain those aspects of his legacy that the political elite in the US would rather not hear about.
King had been one of the most popular blacks among American whites in the years before the Washington speech. Racists would have regarded him with hatred and fear. But in wider, progressive circles, his Bible-inflected eloquence excited the young and attracted general admiration. He was a moderate compared with the brothers off the block now arming themselves as Panthers, who spoke not of peaceful struggle for integration but of black power by any means necessary. In 1957, King was Time magazine’s “Man of the Year”.
In 1967, however, after his Riverside Church speech on April 4th, a year to the day before his murder, the magazine called him – there’s more than a hint of racism in the formulations – “a drawling bumkin, so ignorant that he has not read a newspaper in years, who had wandered out of his natural haunts and away from his natural calling”.
Lyndon Johnston, who had already gone some distance towards delivering civil rights demands, raged in the Oval Office: “What is this goddam nigger trying to do to me?”
King said in the Riverside speech: “I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam and the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam . . . A time has come when silence is betrayal.” He described Johnston’s government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”.
You don’t hear that quoted much these days. Not within earshot of Barack Obama, anyway, and him listening to everything and with his thumb on the trigger of a bomb.
In the same year, King published a book elaborating on the themes of the Riverside speech, Where Do We Go from Here – wonderfully well-written, well-worth digging out – in which he acknowledged the legislative advances made under Johnston, then went on: “The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. The real cost lies ahead . . .
“There is something wrong with capitalism . . . Why are there 40 million poor people in America? When you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system . . . Who owns the oil? . . . Who owns the iron ore? . . . Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” Emblazon that one across the lawn at Leinster House.
King was in Memphis a year later where his life was ended by six bullets from the gun of James Earl Ray. His purpose? To support sanitation workers on strike for union recognition. He told them: “You may have to escalate the struggle a bit . . . You ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis . . . Not a Negro in this city will go to any job . . . The city of Memphis will not be able to function . . . All I’m saying is you’ve got to put the pressure on.”
King explicitly rejected the label “socialist”. But the last call he ever made was for a general strike. Now there’s something to give Ictu leaders a bout of the galloping heebie-jeebies.
And here’s how he ended Where Do We Go from Here?: “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain’.” Say it loud.