Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago. We would do well to reflect on a speech he gave exactly a year before his death.
At the Riverside Church, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, King portrayed the war in Vietnam as an imperial one, prosecuted at the expense of the poor. Vietnam, he said, was “the symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” and, if left untreated, if the malady continued to fester, “we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
This speech, which has been dropped from the more conventional memory of King civil-rights activism, was intensely controversial at the time, angering enemies and supporters alike. Many of his close personal aides felt that he shouldn’t have given it.
The reason for the hostility was the same then as it is now. King made the connection between foreign and domestic policies, drawing clear the inexorable ties between domestic policy and unjust aggression abroad.
This link should not be surprising. Everyone from Eugene Debs, to Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn have known you cannot sustain freedom at home in a global context shaped by militarism, unchecked corporate power, and empire.
In our present milieu it’s much easier to blame Trump, or liberals, or gun lovers, or Russia, or hippies wanting to get high.
However, King’s words were prophetic. “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
US citizens, under the spell of American-Exceptionalism, reject this verdict. They believe that the US is the benevolent hegemon busy spreading freedom and democracy. Even with the ending of the first cold war there has been remarkably little debate over the American empire. Both Republicans and Democrats tout this state of affairs as the naturally occurring inherent goodness of American imperial power.
I believe that this turn to reactionary politics is in large part because voters have lost confidence in our leaders’ ability to tell the the truth about the costs incurred maintaining the far-flung empire. Because of their ignorance of our foreign policy these same voters are lured by demagogues. Panic creates the longing for a strong leader.
Trump’s conservative populism also benefits from the political/economy of empire. In the Riverside speech, King made implicit the connection between the US empire and the neoliberal economic policies that have only become more pronounced since his death.
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” he said. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
While liberals want to hear the civil-rights message in King’s speeches, they refuse to examine the foreign and domestic policies of empire that he condemned. They champion Barak Obama, who they depict as a clear contrast to Donald Trump. “When orange-faced Trump proclaims Make America Great Again, he’s declaring war on the progressive America that Barack Obama began laying the groundwork for.”
But, is Trump really that different from Obama?
Instead, I would argue that for all his charm, Obama was a much more capable steward of empire than the boorish Trump. Obama continued the same militaristic policies as Bush, but in a way that made it easier for Americans to ignore. Drone-strike assassinations and employing terrorist proxies as cut-outs rather than frontal assaults. Regime change instead of invasions.
The policies of violence and control remained consistent.
And Trump supporters. How can we reconcile Trump’s Make America Great Again with his determination to vastly expand the US military, whose mission is a violent maintenance of empire?
Could it be that the deeper malady King referred to inspires the present day gun violence and opioid overdoses? Where do you think these teenage school shooters get the idea that violence might be the solution? Or our neighbors who gaze at America’s savage imperial actions and medicate away the pain?
Is not Russia-gate, at its very essence, a way for the deep state to maintain a violent imperial presence in the face of Trump’s call for a less interventionist foreign policy and detente with Russia?
King ended his Riverside speech with words that are just as powerful today.
“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”