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Beyond the Dreamer
Posted on Jan 15, 2014
By Gar Alperovitz
It was a Ramparts magazine report in early 1967 with many photos of Vietnamese children who had been the victims of U.S. napalm bombing that pushed King over the edge about the war. “He froze as he looked at the pictures,” his assistant Bernard Lee recalled. “He saw a picture of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby, a baby killed by our military ... That’s when the decision was made.”
King’s thunderous challenge to the war and the Johnson administration came in a now-famous Riverside Church speech on April 4, 1967—and the language was no longer “Hegelian.” Indeed the contrast between the King I met in Atlantic City three years before and the King of Riverside Church could not have been starker.
In the Riverside speech, King brought the question of violence by angry black activists into a new and highly controversial focus. “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos,” King said, “without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” He continued, “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe [people] are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression ... We in the West must support these revolutions.”
Such words clearly needed to be followed by action—and very shortly after the speech King came to Cambridge, Mass., along with Dr. Benjamin Spock, to help launch an activist effort against the war that I had helped create called “Vietnam Summer.” Then a Fellow of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, I spent a number of hours driving with him to Cambridge, introduced him and Spock at a press conference launching the effort, and then accompanied King, Spock, and a large group of activists as they began a doorbell-ringing campaign to get people involved in anti-war actions that ranged from middle class petition signing to “Hell No We Won’t Go” draft-card burning rallies. The King of 1967 was calm and resolute, a very different man from the careful and cautious King I had met in 1964.
Found in his pocket after the assassination in Memphis was a list of “10 Commandments” he planned to use in a speech to a large anti-war rally in New York on April 27, 1968. Perhaps the most important for our own time: “Thou shalt not believe in a military victory. Thou shalt not believe that the generals know best. Thou shalt not believe that the world supports the United States. Thou shalt not kill.”
He was assassinated a year to the day after his Riverside Church speech.
Shortly after the launch of Vietnam Summer, at King’s request, I met with him and his assistants Andrew Young and Bernard Lee to sketch out strategies to create new community-wide, democratically owned economic institutions that might also begin to build political power. King’s interest in these strategies was a harbinger of a larger, more complicated direction that was clearly evolving in his own mind.
Here was a man—especially in the last years of his life—who clearly was thinking not simply about new programs and policies, but about what can only be called changing the system. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar,” King said. “It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
On another occasion, King said, “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 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 to ask questions about the whole society.” Elsewhere he added, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
What King meant by “democratic socialism” or a something beyond capitalism is clearly ambiguous—and his evolving thoughts on the issue were tragically cut short. Some believe he had in mind something like the Swedish welfare state he found so laudable when he traveled to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize. My own sense is that his repeated statements point in the direction of something more profound—a democratic form of system-wide change corresponding to the broad, participatory vision he affirmed, a system beyond both traditional capitalism and traditional socialism that hopefully one day may come into clearer focus and definition.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a great civil rights leader, but to remember him only in this way is to diminish what he was about and what we can learn from him. What stands out—as lessons for our own day and to each of us now—is his growing understanding of the importance of confronting ever-more-fundamental issues, even in the face of challenges from the press, the establishment, and his own religious constituency, to say nothing of those on the Right.
It is well to honor the vision he offered of one day achieving a society beyond racism, but even more important to consider his own struggle and the larger trajectory of thought and action he seemed to be exploring. It is a trajectory that points to a very different role for the U.S. in the world, and one that looks to fundamental, far-reaching systemic change to honor her ideals, no matter how difficult to achieve or how long the task.
Gar Alperovitz is Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland and cofounder of the Democracy Collaborative. His latest book is “What Then Must We Do?” This article is drawn from work in progress on a personal memoir.
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