As our nation remembers Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, it is important to remember why King’s legacy and work remain critical in today’s struggle for racial justice and liberation.
We have to reject on this day the intentional sanitization of King’s legacy that prevents us from remembering that King fought to dismantle structural racism and White supremacy in our society. In fact, the mainstream media, our government and a majority of White Americans denounced King when he was alive.
After the ‘dream’
King focused on fighting the evils of racism, capitalism and militarism following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
“The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor — both black and white, here and abroad,” King said.
He noted that “the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
Only 32 percent of the respondents to a 1966 Gallup poll held a favorable view of King. But King understood that the fight against the three evils would be much harder to achieve than ending legal segregation and achieving the right to vote had been.
“Now they often call this the white backlash,” King said in 1967. “It’s just a new name for an old phenomenon. The fact is that there has never been any single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans to genuine equality for Negroes. There has always been ambivalence.”
King became a public enemy following his speech in 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City — exactly one year prior to his death — for opposing the Vietnam War. During his speech, King called the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
King opposed sending Black men to fight an unjust war and argued that the enormous financial investment should instead be used to eradicate poverty in the fight against injustice at home.
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” he said.
Vilified by U.S. mainstream media
The mainstream media condemned King for opposing the war and argued he was hurting his own community.
The Washington Post said King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country and his people.”
Life magazine wrote that King’s Riverside Church speech “was a demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi” and that he “came close to betraying the cause for which he has worked so long.”
Life also claimed that “by characterizing it [Vietnam] as a colonialist war, he introduces matters that have nothing to do with the legitimate battle for equal rights in America” and that “if the drive for equal rights falters now, in the difficult time when life must be given to laws already on the books, Dr. King and his tactics must share the blame.”
The New York Times criticized King in an Op-Ed for “fusing” two issues that were “distinct and separate,” arguing this was a “disservice to both.”
“To divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating,” the Times wrote.
Targeted by U.S. government surveillance
King became a target of the FBI following his speech at the historic march on Washington in 1963.
The FBI was determined to “take him off his pedestal” and destroy him. It feared he had become the “‘most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.’”
The agency secretly bugged King’s home, offices and hotel rooms and learned of his extramarital affairs. The FBI then anonymously sent a letter to King that threatened to expose his sexual activity and implied that he should commit suicide to prevent that from happening.
“There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is,” the letter stated.
The FBI feared King could become a potential “‘Messiah’” and unify the “‘Black nationalist movement’” by abandoning his “‘White liberal doctrines’” of nonviolence.
The FBI used this brand of infiltration, psychological warfare, harassment and manipulation to dismantle a number of liberation movements during the civil-rights era. Many believe the government continues to use these kinds of tactics today.
MLK and Black Lives Matter
Because an assassin’s bullet ended King’s life, we’ll never know how he might have engaged with today’s Movement for Black Lives were he still alive.
We do know that King’s “love” ethic was expansive enough to encompass those within his movement who disagreed with his commitment to nonviolence. This is most evident in his close relationship to younger activists like Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture).
During the 1966 Meredith March through Mississippi, King and Carmichael can be seen leading marchers side by side while explaining their differing views in an on-camera interview.
Carmichael’s “Black power” chant along the march route became the focus of media coverage following Meredith, despite the event’s express purpose of highlighting the continued terrorism targeting Blacks in Mississippi who attempted to vote. In this way, the mainstream media chose to reduce and sensationalize the event while exaggerating the perception of discord within the movement.
King responded in an interview with Mike Wallace:
“I contend that the cry of ‘Black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of White power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Uprisings continue today in major U.S. cities like Ferguson and Baltimore, where young activists organize and react to law enforcement’s extrajudicial killings of unarmed Black people — today’s manifestation of the same White supremacy and lawlessness that claimed Dr. King’s life.
2018: Continued oppression from corporate media and government
Fifty years after King’s assassination, the fight for racial justice remains unpopular with the public at large.
Mainstream news outlets still protect a White racial hierarchy and provide too little coverage of structural racism. And cable news too often covers race like a sporting event, inflaming racial tensions instead of seeking to inform us.
Meanwhile, government surveillance of racial-justice movements continues. An FBI report leaked last year claims Black activists are fueling a “Black Identity Extremist” movement that threatens the lives of law-enforcement officers.
Color Of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights are now fighting in court to get the Department of Homeland Security to release an unredacted version of a document called the “Race Paper” that may also outline DHS’ surveillance of communities of color.
This is why the fight for a just media system is critical to achieving racial justice. It’s hard to achieve racial justice if we can’t tell our own stories. But people of color own few broadcast outlets and fewer cable outlets.
This is why we have to fight to dismantle our media system: so people of color can own and control our own outlets and narratives.
We deserve a media system that allows us to go online without being targeted by government or corporate surveillance or hate speech. We deserve a media system that informs us, embraces our culture and empowers us instead of trying to harm us or sanitize our history and existence.
In realizing a media system that is by and for the people, we may finally rescue King’s legacy from corporate news outlets that fail to properly critique both the past and the present. And as we unleash his story, and our own, we may finally begin to spark the transformation he dreamed.