By ISAAC SANEY*
The annual U.S. holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King is a time for serious contemplation of his actual legacy. The pervasive and dominant narrative freezes in place King’s politics and philosophy, transfixing his thinking to August 28 1963: the March on Washington and his “I Have A Dream Speech.” Of course, selective quotes of “I Have A Dream Speech” are deployed to render a de-radicalized version of King. The subsequent development – up to his April 4, 1968 assassination – of his views on capitalism and imperialism are ignored.
Entwined with this rendering of King’s politics is the construction of a seemingly unbridgeable dichotomy between King and Malcolm X. Each portrayed as the other’s antithesis. It bears reflecting on how King moved closer to many of the political positions that Malcolm had adopted and advocated in the final years of his life. Malcolm assumed an uncompromising anti-imperialism, embodied by trenchant criticism of the West. The West’s interests, he declared are inextricably tied to “imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, racism…” Malcolm went further extending his burgeoning anti-imperialism to a searing critique of capitalism, the system undergirding Western imperialism. Malcolm argued: “You can’t have capitalism without racism… You can’t operate a capitalistic system unless you are vulturistic; you have to have someone else’s blood to suck to be a capitalist…” Malcolm viewed racist oppression and exploitation of African-Americans as deeply entangled with U.S. aggression abroad, and this oppression and exploitation and warmongering were (are) the products of the capitalist system.
King’s understanding of the nature of U.S. society moved along the same lines. In the years following the March On Washington, he augmented his eloquent and poignant “I Have a Dream” vision with a deepening opposition to Washington’s foreign policy and to the economic system that produced aggression abroad and inequality and poverty at home. King firmly opposed the war in Vietnam.
His opposition to the war in Vietnam was not simply a powerful moral stance, but one that tied Washington’s aggression to a system that on a global scale produced, maintained and required great disparities of wealth and power between a privileged few and the disenfranchised vast majority. He observed: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.”
King understood that while the Civil Rights Movement had won important victories, these victories could not be permanent as long as the underlying structural roots of inequality, poverty and racism were not fundamentally altered. In short, capitalism had to be radically transformed. In a 1967 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King unequivocally articulated this analysis:
“One day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice, which produces beggars, needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked.”
King’s political practice and strategy reflected his new analytical appreciation of the interconnection of racism, oppression, inequality, capitalism and imperialism. In the last year of his life, he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to achieve a fairer and more equitable society through a united movement of Black and white workers, of all the exploited and oppressed in the United States. While the Poor People’s Campaign aimed for peaceful reform, it was a potent challenge to the ideological and ideational hegemony of capitalism.
The goal – the Promised Land – was the creation of a better world, one fit for human beings. The Promised Land has yet to be reached (and for some envisioned), nevertheless, the struggle for a better world endures.
*Dr. Isaac Saney is Director of the Transition Year Program, Dalhousie University and Adjunct Professor of History, Saint Mary’s University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Reposted from his Facebook Timeline.