King’s Forgotten Legacy

Posted by on Jan 25th, 2008 and filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry


MOST of us had no recourse but to turn to media outlets throughout America, whether by radio or television, to commemorate Christian activist Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy. Some of us may have listened to Dr. King’s signatory “I Have a Dream” speech for racial equality, which he himself delivered before the Lincoln Memorial to throngs of people on August 28, 1963. We see Dr. King and his supporters battling desegregation attitudes in Birmingham earlier that year, or to learn of his march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965. We remind ourselves of Dr. King through television footage featuring white police authorities spraying unsuspected black supporters with fire-hoses. We remember his noble attempt to rally striking sanitary workers for better pay in key pockets of the South; and, finally, we are reminded of his assassination at a motel balcony in Memphis in 1968.

Like an uninterrupted movie-reel, our understanding of Dr. King’s legacy continues to be diluted year after year, with most young people unable to grasp this nation’s historical dialectic of racial and socioeconomic inequality. American historians today testify to and are dismayed by this phenomenon. They now say that Dr. King’s legacy “is being frozen in time”. Television portrayals now ignore Dr. King’s complexity. And historians now point to a simple reason: today’s “popular” culture magnetizes us to popular personalities such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. According to Melissa Harris-Lancewell, professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, following Dr. King meant following the unpopular road. Toward the end of his life, Dr. King was not a popular figure – he was a pariah.

Dr. King’s legacy is frozen in time because there is no trace of his dynamism, a consequence of his intense relationship with historic realities of his time. He and other leaders of his time strove to fulfill basic promises extolled by proponents of a liberal democracy: that blacks secure long-overdue concrete political, social and economic parity with whites.

Dr. King was not popular with the mainstream political leaders of his time who wished to extend segregationist domestic policies, a key foundation for the civil rights movement. He became even more unpopular as he linked the civil rights movement with the Vietnam War. Dr. King faced increasing opposition from Congressional members, the press and civil rights colleagues.

Democratic contender Hillary Rodham-Clinton cannot point to Dr. King’s aversion to the Vietnam War, perhaps because she cannot find it politically expedient to remind this nation that it is involved with unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said that Dr. King’s “dream” would not have been realized had President Lyndon Johnson not signed Civil Rights legislation. Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam conflict by increasing troop levels from 16,000 American soldiers in 1963 to 550,000 in early 1968. Speaking at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. King cited that 40% of the fighting troops in Vietnam were African-American. He also noted that precious material resources being pumped into this “unjust” war should be pumped into improving poor black communities. African-American soldiers, Dr. King argued, were dying at disproportionately higher rates than white soldiers. Addressing a large crowd at the Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. King pointed out that the war effort was “taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem”. In effect, Dr. King argued that the Vietnam conflict was exacerbating socioeconomic inequality.

Most of us cannot remember Dr. King’s moral aversion to the Vietnam War. The mainstream media cannot remind us of Dr. King’s virulent anti-Vietnam war speech at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, given the current international malaise in Iraq. We don’t remember Dr. King denouncing America’s “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism”, and his depiction of the U.S. as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”.

This nation entangled itself in the Vietnam War to curb the uninterrupted flow of Communism, and it sought to extol the virtues of liberal democracy. This nation now wishes to extol liberal democracy and its virtues in much of the Muslim world.

We choose to forget this side of Dr. King’s legacy, to our own peril, for even then he warned, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death”. Just days after his anti-war speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, Time magazine ruled his position “demagogic slander”. The Washington Post editorialized that “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people”; and the F.B.I. viewed him as the “most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country”. Dr. King successfully linked the war in Vietnam to the American civil rights movement. He linked American militarism to this country’s economic and moral health.

So far the most accurate rationale for the mounting cost of the Iraq war on the United States is due to what many commentators refer to a “failed transition” to Iraqi rule. As “democratic elections” loomed for Iraq in December, 2005, Congress approved $151.1 billion. Congressional leaders anticipate an additional $60 billion during Bush’s second term. If these numbers don’t jar your senses, consider that the war bill will eventually add up to an average of at least $3,415 for every U.S. household. Consider also that this $151.1 billion dollars already earmarked for Iraq could have paid for close to 23 million housing vouchers, or health care for over 27 million uninsured Americans; $151.1 billion could have been earmarked for salaries for nearly 3 million elementary school teachers; $151.1 billion could have built 678,200 fire-engines; it could have created 20 million Health Start slots for disadvantaged children, mainly of color; it could have provided heath-care coverage for 82 million children. America’s trade deficit ballooned to a record $165 billion in the third quarter of last year, and its annual foreign debt is a staggering $665 billion. No misprint here: $665 billion per year. Present military operations have driven the U.S. budget deficit to $413 billion. This nation now appropriates $2 billion per week for the Iraq war.

When we examine the moral consequences of the war in Iraq, we see a grim picture. U.S. military casualties stand at a monthly average of 747, compared to a monthly average of 482 U.S. military casualties during the invasion of Iraq. According to Pentagon estimates, the number of Iraqi resistance fighters has quadrupled between November 2003 and September 2004. Since March of 2003, murder, rape and kidnapping rose exponentially in Iraq. Recent estimates now say that 655, 000 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of this nation’s invasion of Iraq.

Had Dr. King been alive today he would be agitating for a concrete realization for socioeconomic equality here at home, and he would have linked these issues with wars currently underway in the Muslim world.

The writer is a recent revert to Islam and can be contacted at:

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