It’s almost a cliché by now to say that the dominant image of Martin Luther King, Jr. is a cuddly lie propagated by forces who want to rewrite the truth about his radicalism and militancy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Part of the tragedy of King’s assassination 50 years ago today is that he was murdered just as his critique American society was at its most far-reaching, exciting, and dangerous to the establishment.
Tons of people have written about “the radical King,” so I just want to focus on a single speech he gave on September 1, 1967, at a conference in Chicago called the National Conference for a New Politics. This was months after his iconic “Beyond Vietnam” speech, where his attack on the Vietnam War led to scalding criticism from liberals who told him to stay in his lane, and came just about seven months before he was murdered.
To give you a flavor of King’s standing with mainstream society at the time, the New Yorker’s Renata Adler denounced the entire conference as a “travesty of radical politics” and called King’s speech “a long and, for him, rather flat peroration.”
Read and heard today, it comes across as an electrifying and deeply relevant deconstruction of the problems with American society and culture.
He spoke about the betrayals of a Democratic Party that had squandered its chance to improve the country in favor of fighting the war in Vietnam (emphasis mine throughout):
Many assembled here campaigned assiduously for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 because we could not stand idly by and watch our nation contaminated by the 18th century policies of Goldwaterism. We were the hardcore activists who were willing to believe that Southerners could be reconstructed in the constitutional image. We were the dreamers of a dream that dark yesterdays of man’s inhumanity to man would soon be transformed into bright tomorrows of justice. Now it is hard to escape the disillusionment and betrayal. Our hopes have been blasted and our dreams have been shattered. The promise of a Great Society was shipwrecked off the coast of Asia, on the dreadful peninsula of Vietnam. The poor, black and white, are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. What happens to a dream deferred? It leads to bewildering frustration and corroding bitterness.
He spoke about the experience of giving a speech in Chicago and being booed by black people in the crowd because, he concluded, they felt they had been sold a lie about America, including by him:
For twelve years, I and others like me have held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not too distant day when they would have freedom, all here, now. I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing me because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.
And then he analyzed America in ways that feel strikingly contemporary.
I suspect that we are now experiencing the coming to the surface of a triple-pronged sickness that has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning. That is the sickness of racism, excessive materialism, and militarism. Not only is this our nation’s dilemma. It is the plague of western civilization.
The step backwards has a new name today. It is called the white backlash, but the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities, and ambivalences that have always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of black power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities. The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation.
Again we have diluted ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard word and sacrifice, 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, both here and abroad. If Negroes and poor whites do not participate in the free flow of wealth within our economy, they will forever be poor, giving their energies, their talents and their limited funds to the consumer market but reaping few benefits and services in return. The way to end poverty is to end the exploitation of the poor, ensure them a fair share of the government services and the nation’s resources. I proposed recently that a national agency be established to provide employment for everyone needing it. Nothing is more socially inexcusable than unemployment in this age.
On war and on national priorities:
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs, with reduced incomes as a result of automation, while the profits of the employers remain intact, and say, this is not just. It will look across the ocean and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia and Africa only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries and say, this is not just. It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say, this is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, this way of settling differences is not just. This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s home with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloodied battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.
On the connection between fighting racism and fighting war:
There are those who have criticized me and many of you for taking a stand against the War in Vietnam and for seeking to say to the nation that the issues of civil rights cannot be separated from the issues of peace. I want to say to you tonight that I intend to keep these issues mixed because they are mixed.
It is an utter abomination that someone with such a clear, thrillingly bracing critique of American society was cut down just as he was beginning to put this analysis into action. It is an equal tragedy that so much in America has remained the same since 1967 that King could give this speech today and it would still feel wholly up to date.