Black History Jeff Cohen Norman Solomon

The Liberal Contempt for Martin Luther King’s Final Year

The MLK tributes are sure to pour on the anniversary of the civil rights hero's death, but don't expect them to acknowledge his anti-militarist ideals.
[bswise / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

The anniversary of his assassination always brings a flood of tributes to Martin Luther King Jr., and this Sunday will surely be no exception. But those tributes — including from countless organizations calling themselves progressive — are routinely evasive about the anti-militarist ideals that King passionately expressed during the final year of his life.

You could call it evasion by omission.

The standard liberal canon waxes fondly nostalgic about King’s “I have a dream” speech in 1963 and his efforts against racial segregation. But in memory lane, the Dr. King who lived his last year is persona non grata.

The pattern is positively Orwellian. King explicitly condemned what he called “the madness of militarism.” And by any reasonable standard, that madness can be diagnosed as pervading U.S. foreign policy in 2021. But today, almost all politicians and mainstream media commentators act as though King never said such things, or if he did then those observations have little to do with today.

But they have everything to do with the USA now in its twentieth year of continuous warfare. The Pentagon’s constant bombing in the Middle East and elsewhere is the scarcely noticed wallpaper in the U.S. media’s echo chamber.

What compounds the madness of militarism in the present day is the silence that stretches eerily and lethally across almost the entire U.S. political spectrum, including the bulk of progressive organizations doing excellent work to challenge economic injustice and institutionalized racism here at home.

But as for the institutionalized militarism that terrorizes, wounds and kills people overseas — overwhelmingly people of color — a sad truth is that most progressive U.S. organizations have little to say about it. At the same time, they eagerly and selectively laud King as a visionary and role model.

King didn’t simply oppose the Vietnam War. In an April 4, 1967 speech at New York’s Riverside Church delivered exactly a year before he was assassinated — titled “Beyond Vietnam” — he referred to the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and broadly denounced the racist and imperial underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy. From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, our country was on the “wrong side of a world revolution” — suppressing revolutions “of the shirtless and barefoot people” in the Global South, instead of supporting them. 

King critiqued the economics of U.S. foreign policy, complaining about “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.” And he castigated U.S. federal budgets prioritizing militarism: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” 

Mainstream media today pretend that King’s anti-militarism pronouncements were never uttered, but that was not the case in 1967. Condemnation was swift, emphatic and widespreadLife magazine denounced the “Beyond Vietnam” speech as “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The New York Times and Washington Post both published harsh and patronizing editorials.

Today, it’s not just a problem of elite media — but also a vast spectrum of organizations that are taking a dive in the fight against the warfare state. This problem undermines the political resonance and social mission of countless organizations that do wonderful work but are betraying a crucial part of the living legacy of Dr. King, whom they never tire of claiming to be emulating and venerating.

This crisis is now heightened under the Biden administration. In an ominous echo of the mid-1960s, when King began speaking out against the warfare state, the kind of split between somewhat progressive domestic policies and militaristic foreign policies that occurred under the Lyndon Johnson presidency now appears to be occurring under the presidency of Joe Biden.

In the persistent “guns vs. butter” reckoning, it’s clear that federal funds needed to uplift poor and working-class people as well as our planet keep getting diverted to militarism and war.

Dr. King pointed out that, in effect, what goes around comes around. As he put it, “the bombs in Vietnam explode at home.” But there is a dire shortage of large progressive organizations willing to say that the bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere have been exploding at home for two decades.

Twenty-first century bombs that have been exploding overseas, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, also explode at home in terms of the further militarization of the economy, police, culture and consciousness — as well as the misdirection of vital resources to the Pentagon rather than human needs.

“It challenges the imagination to contemplate what lives we could transform if we were to cease killing,” Dr. King said as the Vietnam War raged. The massive U.S. military budget still functions the way King described it — “some demonic, destructive suction tube.” Yet the silences across so much of the U.S. political spectrum, including the liberal establishment and a great many progressive groups, persist in contempt of what Martin Luther King stood for during the final year of his life.

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Jeff Cohen is an activist, author and co-founder of RootsAction.org. He was an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and founder of the media watch group FAIR. In 2002-2003, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC. He is the author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media

Norman Solomon is the national director of RootsAction.org and the author of many books including War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He was a Bernie Sanders delegate from California to the 2016 and 2020 Democratic National Conventions. Solomon is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. 

8 comments

  1. We would live in a different world today if Martin Luther King and President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy had not been assassinated. A far better world.

    My oldest son was also a Bernie Delegate -In Nevada in 2016. What went on at that Convention-it is still on YouTube-shows exactly why our country is in such a mess today.

    I fell like trying to change the current corrupt Capitalist System, is like trying to change Nazi Germany from within.
    It is just not possible.

  2. I so appreciate this call to absorb King’s penetrating call to wake up and stop our murdering, maiming and crushing militarism. At the time I felt the dropping of the draft in favor of a seeming all “volunteer” army was a grave mistake. When all families – not just the poor – suffer blood lost , the wild grief from that becomes shared, palpable, experienced directly. Impossible to “objectify” the carnage. Your very own soul forever shaped. And, you track. Keep stock of. Remember. Unlike today. The wars occur in the attic and/or basement of the collective mind – up there, over or down there somewhere rarely, if ever, visited. Incidental. Somebody’s else’s kid. Too bad. It’s not the reporter’s, the congress woman’s, the CEO’s, the plumber’s, the professor’s, the manager’s any more. It’s not the neoliberal’s kid. The weapon’s manufacturer’s. Not their precious blood at stake. Out of sight; out of mind. One more way conscious and unconscious adherence to the “business model” nulls our experience of collective mutual resonsibility.

  3. Maybe we need to hold counter-demonstrations on MLK Day to protest the cowardly and cynical distortions and omissions imposed by the liberal and “progressive” mainstream. And remember it was not just militarism that King opposed, but also the inequality, racism, poverty and materialism embedded in American society. “The Radical King,” a 2015 collection of King’s writings edited and introduced by Cornel West, is an invaluable resource.

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  5. Off the top of the head, one can immediately venture that the group of right-wing collaborators who had Martin Luther King assassinated in 1968 are the very same organization of collaborators who ordered the killing of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 and who were behind the murder of the President of Chile, Salvador Allende, in the Chilean coup d’etat of 1973.
    How many attempts were made on the life of Fidel Castro by the same connections, beginning from 1959 on.
    Let’s not even begin to talk of an African Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961 or a President, Samora Machel, in 1986.
    And for the same reason!
    They all believed in mass societal elevation before the private profits of the few usurpers of economies.
    And where does this leave Julian Assange today, in 2021?

  6. Thank you for this vital reminder of that things are not commonly reported or taught. Certainly the Biden administration has advocated some progressive domestic policies but, just as certainly, Biden’s foreign policy continues to fund the criminally high military budget. The problem with the misrepresentation of MLK runs deep. I taught in California high schools for 35 years. I reviewed dozens and dozens of US history textbooks. All of them say something about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and all of them repeat the most predictable elements of the I have a Dream Speech. None of them credit King for his insightful analysis of the American War Machine. When I presented my students with the Riverside Church speech they were often shocked at his insights. I encourage all of those with children in high school to examine the textbooks given to your kids. Then complain loudly to the local school board and to the state superintendent and to whoever else might listen.

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