Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The continuing legacy and call to conscience
In this June 7, 1966 file photo, Mississippi Highway Patrolmen shove the Rev. Martin Luther King and members of his marching group off the traffic lane of Highway 51 south of Hernando, Miss. King, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael (head visible at upper right), and other civil rights leaders had taken up a march begun by James Meredith. | AP

Billions of people around the world, without exaggeration, remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They remember him for his academic excellence at Morehouse College where he earned his baccalaureate degree; at Crozer Theological Seminary where he earned his bachelors of divinity; and at Boston University where he earned his doctorate. He was a minister of the gospel and an activist. King was courageous whether he was fighting Jim Crow segregation or fighting to end the war in Vietnam War.

He was a theologian with a profound faith in Jesus Christ. Too often, perhaps owing to the sensitivities of social movements and leading political parties around the world, the average person fails to remember that.

Despite this, we are forced, by grief and circumstance, to peep through all the parades and memorial celebrations to examine the true greatness of the man who, while protesting racial segregation, would aid in the establishment of a new denomination of the Baptist Church, the Progressive National Baptist Convention. When the President of the National Baptist Convention did not want to see protesting in the streets, King felt it necessary to protect the religious health of the members of various Baptist congregations whose members desired to participate in direct action.

King did not stop there. His strength and presence were felt in the board room and on the street. Whether he was in attendance at the national board of the NAACP or as the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King personified leadership. His commanding personality gave confidence and courage to everyone who followed him.

Perhaps it was not the man but the circumstances, challenges, and experiences that produced greatness in King. Segregation had been in existence legally since the 1870s and ’80s. Such laws were the direct result of post-Reconstruction Democrat-dominated state legislatures which disenfranchised African Americans throughout the South. This legislation was the product of racism and the notion that the South should be redeemed and Reconstruction ended. African Americans had no civil rights, could barely lay claim to freedom, and were not and could not be equal under the eyes of the law. Racial segregation laws were not only enforced by local and state police but by the brutal and violent actions of private citizens such as the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups.

It was into this world of injustice and violence that Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on Jan. 15, 1929. The NAACP had begun to document the mass murders and lynching of African Americans. By 1950, nearly 4,000 African Americans had been lynched by racist mobs. See, for example, A Comprehensive Map of American Lynchings, by Laura Bliss. It was a world of woeful discrimination. Within ten months of King’s birth, the world would descend into the greatest economic catastrophe humanity had ever known. This Great Depression would last until the dawn of the Second World War.

The young Martin would experience this in early life. African Americans suffered greater poverty due to racism and oppression—the poverty because of racism. The poverty of discrimination, throughout the U.S., was not only a deprivation of goods and services but one of deprivation of spirit. King would march for the end of Jim Crow. He would battle segregation in Montgomery in 1955, in Albany, Ga., in 1962, in Birmingham in 1963. He would organize the March on Washington the same year, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He would not stop his crusade against Jim Crow and racial injustice.

This is the essence of the indestructible legacy left by King. The striving for peace and justice cannot be destroyed by an assassin’s bullet, nor mangled by the jaws of bloodthirsty dogs tearing at human flesh. Peace and justice could not be crushed by the Alabama State Police. Nothing could stop King and his movement for nonviolence, peace, justice, and equality.

We must not turn a blind eye to the fact King was not only an activist, but a theologian. On April 4, 1967, King delivered the bold speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” drafted by activist and historian Vincent Harding at New York City’s Riverside Church. King states early in the speech, “I believe the path leads from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to this sanctuary.”

The pastor before King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Rev. Vernon Johns, was a courageous man who on occasion sold fish in the church. Johns had a niece who was somewhat imbued with her uncle’s bravery. He fought with sermons against the evils of Jim Crow. His niece, Barbara Johns, would vividly describe the inequities of the Robert Russa Moton High School of Farmville, Va. She would lead a school strike. The NAACP would be summoned. Undaunted by fear of the unknown, she would bravely become one of four cases that would lead to the decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).

During the Riverside speech, King enumerates the great tragedies of the Vietnam War. American backing of French colonialism instead of Vietnamese independence. The support of numerous military dictatorships. The crushing of democratic movements, among them the Unified Buddhist Church. The refusal to allow national elections—especially since those elections would have led to a presidency for Ho Chi Minh. King cites Western arrogance, just another form of white supremacy and racism.

King would not stop fighting racism. Whether it took on the form of state troopers, city police, or a local bigot, the punch in the jaw was the same. The blow could be withstood. King continued, undeterred from the struggle for freedom, the liberation struggle.

The blows were all the products of hatred, but King was able to make the connection between the Alabama State Patrol, the beatings on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the U.S. Armed Forces and their bombings in the Mekong Delta and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. King pushed further. He learned that U.S. imperialism was larger than segregated schools and lunch counters, even as he knew they were connected. The right to vote was denied to both African Americans and the Vietnamese. Fannie Lou Hamer and Ho Ci Minh both had been denied the benefits of the franchise by U.S. imperialism and racist oppression.

King then made the final connection between peace and prosperity, war and economic deprivation. Monies that went to the creation of weapons were monies burned on the funeral pyre of war. The U.S. had serious problems at home. It could not afford to deprive its citizens of housing, food, clothing, and a decent education, to build a navy that is too large and bombs and bombers to bomb Hanoi.

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual 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 say: ‘This is not just.’”

During the Democratic Party Primary Presidential Debates this past year, the moderates kept talking about the cost of single payer health insurance. But no one seemed to care about a navy that is larger than the next thirteen largest navies combined. No one dared to speak of the cost of a $3 billion destroyer and the problem of overcrowded classrooms in America. No one seemed to care about the cost of $13 billion for the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford and still another estimated $12 billion for the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, despite the serious problems the average U.S. citizen has with housing in the United States. The number of homeless continues to rise. The number of individuals addicted to drugs continues to rise. The number of mentally ill continues to rise.

Racial discrimination and violence continue to have a negative impact on our society. Many of these problems stem from inadequate and unequal education in the United States. We continue to exploit the poor and defenseless both at home and abroad. The U.S. government is committed to regime change in order to expand its control over other nations’ wealth. People have had to take to the streets to prevent the U.S. oil monopolies from taking control of Venezuelan oil.

It doesn’t matter whether the U.S. has a GDP of $12 trillion. What matters is that this great nation allows millions of Americans to go without food because they cannot find work. What matters is the average minimum wage earner cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment. What matters is to stem the tide of wanton violence brought on by the lack of gun control and the inability of Americans to receive adequate treatment for mental illness.

The U.S. government has spent millions overthrowing duly elected governments in South America. Why? Because the U.S. and its corporate elite desired the wealth of those nations. Evo Morales was overthrown in Bolivia for the lithium in its soil. King urged us to commit ourselves to the struggle for peace and justice in these United States. We live in evil times, when a president who has been impeached for violating the U.S. Constitution has arguably killed a man to turn the hateful glare of the masses from him—provoking a war in order to bury his crimes in the rubble of his bombed-out enemies.

In memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the day of his birth, we ask for justice and peace. We insist on not being silenced. We want no war in Iran. We want U.S. troops out of Iraq. We want U.S. troops out of Africa. We demand U.S. respect for the sovereignty of Venezuela. We demand an end to imperialism and the reinstatement of Evo Morales and the duly elected government of Bolivia. We want an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour and the right to form a union. We want to see the end of global warming and the end of the use of fossil fuels. We want an active government investment in clean energy. We want single payer health insurance, so that every American can be healthy. All these, we believe, are fundamental human rights.

Just as King stated at the end of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24).

We have a dream.

The author is a member of the Religion Commission of the CPUSA.


CONTRIBUTOR

Karamo Muchuri Sulieman
Karamo Muchuri Sulieman

Karamo Muchuri Sulieman is an artist, poet, and writer in Pennsylvania.

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