Martin Luther King's radicalism 'sanitised' by US leaders

Mel Reeves

American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, who was assassinated 40 years ago, was referred to as a politically moderate 'Dreamer' by US daily papers. Even some Black periodicals heralded the occasion by referring to MLK in the same revisionist terms.

The presidential candidates joined the act as well, as they praised the fallen prophet and their respective versions - or, more accurately, revisions  — of King. John McCain apologised and prevaricated, Barack Obama hoped and obfuscated, and Hillary Clinton promised and appropriated, but they all managed to dilute his message and sanitise this great man.

McCain, as he reminded us in his speech, refused to vote in favour of the King holiday in 1983 when the initiative was finally passed. McCain supported Arizona Governor Evan Mecham when, in 1987, he rescinded a previous order by the former Governor Bruce Babbitt creating a state MLK holiday. Mecham said at the time: "I guess King did a lot for the coloured people, but I don't think he deserves a national holiday."

A referendum supporting a holiday was voted down in 1990. And in 1992, after the state lost Super Bowl XXVII and was the object of national scorn, Arizonans voted in favour of the King holiday. McCain voiced regret about his opposition in 1999 when he was also running for the presidency.

He explained to NBC's Tim Russert that, "on the Martin Luther King issue, we all learn. I will admit to learning," he said. The question now is, what did he learn? I think he learned how better to play politics.

But McCain's initial refusal to honour King was more honest and more accurate than his attempt to portray King as an American super-patriot, who somehow was once scorned by the world. In one piece of brilliant revision, McCain speaks about what happened after he got the news from his Vietnamese captors about King's death.

The Senator said: "Doubtless it boosted our captors' morale, confirming their belief that America was a lost cause and the future belonged to them. Yet how differently it all turned out to be. And if they had been the more reflective kind, our enemies would have understood that the cause of Dr. King was bigger than one man and could not be stopped by force of violence."

In another section he commented, "Martin Luther King is honoured by the world, in such a way that it is easy to forget he once knew the scorn of the world." Scorn of the world? Nobody can blame this on a typo. Rather, it was a conscious attempt by McCain to make King one of the good ole boys who just tried to love us into doing right.

In speech after speech, King said that the coming world belonged to the oppressed of the earth. He counted the revolutionary Vietnamese as members of the oppressed in his famous anti-war speech "Beyond Vietnam," delivered at New York's Riverside Church exactly a year before he was murdered. In that speech, he said of the Vietnamese fighting US aggression that, "these too are our brothers.... I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them."

King was well respected throughout the Third World and developing world and all those struggling to throw off the yoke of colonialism and oppression, including the Vietnamese. King was the quintessential internationalist.

While loving his country, he loved the world as well. His enemy and McCain's enemy would not be the same. King sided with those in Vietnam whom McCain would refer to as the enemy. He supported US troops as well by insisting that they be brought home and away from a conflict that they had no business interfering in and that was destroying their bodies and souls.

John McCain opposed an MLK holiday because Dr. King opposed large defence budgets while the government neglected domestic needs such as full employment, equal quality public education and affordable housing. It was the US government that hated King, the same government that King described as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

It was the violence orchestrated by the US government that felled King. And today they try to sanitise his message. McCain voted against the King holiday because the human rights leader said: "The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality...we will be marching for a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy."

Senator Barack Obama said, eloquently, that "the great need of this hour is much the same as it was when Dr. King delivered his sermon in Memphis."
King would remind the Democratic Party's frontrunner, that while it is good to hope we must do more than hope. He would remind us, as he did at Riverside Church, that: "We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing oriented society to a person-oriented society. 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."

And King would explain to the Senator that the very system he hopes to represent is the problem. Hillary Clinton would not be outdone on the subject of Dr. King. She praised the fallen leader and suggested the addition of a cabinet level position devoted to ending poverty in America. Dr. King would have had an answer for Senator Clinton as well:

"Why are there [millions] of 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 must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." (from "Where Do We Go From Here," August 16, 1967).

This is the real, radical legacy of MLK, who challenged us to see that it was the Western system that produced the problems.