By Ed Pavlic, Distinguished Research Professor of English and African American Studies, University of Georgia. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website
How a Myth Turns a Man to Stone
Near the end of Parting the Waters, the first book in his trilogy-biography of Martin Luther King Jr, Taylor Branch coronates the living substance of King’s most historically visible moment, speaking before hundreds of thousands of people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. During the half-century following the March, of course, countless millions would view and re-view these moments, transforming them first into “oratory,” and then into the dangerous impenetrability of fame. But Branch digs back into the passions of the moment to uncover the importance of the speech. Arguing against critics who thought King’s insistence upon “the Dream” transformed contingent, historical material—namely bodies—into transcendent mythological presences, making a safe-sounding-simplicity out of dangerous and complex matters which the nation had to face, Branch’s description counters:
the emotional command of his oratory gave King authority to reinterpret the core intuition of democratic justice. More than his words, the timbre of his voice projected him across the racial divide and planted him as a new founding father.
Yet even with this astute observation, there is no avoiding the fact that these moments of coronation of King have turned him into exactly the kind of untouchable, mythological-historical power that he and his fellow activists sought to disrupt and challenge.
In this sense, planting Martin Luther King, Jr. in a row with the “founding fathers” is exactly the trouble. Just as the process of historical coronation has long done for revolutionary elements in the legacy of the so-called “fathers” themselves, such gestures turn the passion of living flesh into gray-veined marble or granite, mediums cold to the touch, and—except in the hands of the best artists—incapable of touching us back. As Brandon Terry recently argued so skillfully, that process of would-be honorific myth-making robs us all of a living relationship to leaders such as King by presenting him as “an icon to quote, not a thinker and public philosopher to engage.”
King’s position in history signals part of the danger afflicting us all: something—possibly rooted in our insistence upon simplicity—polices American history and transforms things we come to understand—even each other and ourselves—into untouchable objects. Rare exceptions who can’t be kept silent or neutralized in coronation, are attacked, undermined, and destroyed. Then, after they’re destroyed, the process of neutralization ensues, and by no means always by their opponents. One key to revivifying the living passion and power of King’s late vision is found in his increasingly explicit insistence upon economicsand the tangles of inter-generational and cross-cultural complexity and potential that came with that insistence. No less than Marx, by the last year of his life King had come to understand that economics offered key indices of social relations, and vice versa. King’s sense of both was changing rapidly in the year leading up to his assassination fifty years ago.
The Multi-Racial Economics of King’s Late Vision and Living Legacy
In 1980, twenty-two years after King’s murder in Memphis, James Baldwin found himself staring at the granite surface of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument in Atlanta. He was making the film, I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Viewers of the film watch Baldwin pace in front of King’s granite tomb etched with the words, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last.” Accompanying this footage, we listen to Baldwin tell his brother David about his return to King’s home. Baldwin is anguished by what he found there. “I was wondering what would Martin have thought of his Atlanta now,” he told David. Recounting the visible symbols of historical invisibility, Baldwin went on:
My dear, all over the South now there are Martin Luther King, Jr. drives, freeways and expressways and there is the monument in Atlanta, which is—it’s hard for me to say this but I’ll say it—is absolutely as irrelevant as the Lincoln Memorial. It is one of the ways that the Western world has learned, or thinks it’s learned, to outwit history, to outwit time, to make a life and a death irrelevant, to make that passion irrelevant, to make it unusable, for you and for our children.”
Over footage of Baldwin staring at the message etched in stone and thereby robbed of its flesh-and-blood relevance, he concludes, “there’s nothing you can do with that monument… and we’re confronting that.”
But are we? How? How can we? Well, the radical economic and complexly social nature of King’s late vision presents a challenging reality no one has yet dared to etch into granite. King’s fast-radicalizing economic vision and its accompanying, insurgent and cross-racial message still bear the fugitive—if not dissident—and unsanctioned ephemerality of graffiti. As Baldwin understood very well, the living—as opposed to the granite—King is still anathema. In the place of the impenetrable clichés of coronation that litter our image of King’s vision, let’s focus for a moment on a few of the things he had in the works in the year leading up to his murder in Memphis.
First, King’s late vision connected his famous rhetoric of shimmering dreams and the filmy contents of universal human character to the immediate need for a radical restructuring of material interests and living conditions across the U.S. In May of 1967, at the Penn Center in Frogmore, South Carolina, King addressed the staff retreat of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which had been formed in January 1957 in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The economic dimensions of his message were foundational and clearly stated: “We can’t solve our problems unless there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” In a riff he’d repeat throughout the final year of his life, he continued: “Our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.” But, King also knew such economic visions carried along complex and volatile cultural histories and contemporary energies that were, even within the movement, often enough in conflict with each other as well as with the national, racial status quo.
The vital brilliance of King’s late vision is grounded in how he sifted together economics with cultural, spiritual, philosophical, and psychological vocabularies, ones too often separated from each other and absent from conversations about material conditions by economists and sociologists.
King understood that these conversations must take place between generations and in coalitions that link communities and span ideologies. Building on his dissent from the American War in Vietnam that he publicly disclosed at Riverside Church in Manhattan in April 1967, King’s late vision makes gestures of unmistakable fellowship and cooperation with the younger, “Black Power” generation led by Stokley Carmichael and others. Most of the leaders in King’s generation and class recoiled from Carmichael’s urgency and from his demand for power, Black power. But King attempted to reconcile the assembled members of the SCLC in South Carolina to the basic logic of the demand for power.
We must not worry about using the word Power, because this is what is wrong in so many instances, is that we are devoid of power. Now power is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. Power is the ability to affect change. The problem has been that all too many people have seen power and love as polar opposites. Consequently, on the one hand, they have thought of loveless power. And on the other hand they have thought of powerless love. They didn’t understand that the two fulfilled each other. And what we must understand in the non-violent movement is that power without love is reckless. And love without power is sentimental. In other words, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.
King would weave riffs and phrases connecting economics and cultural power throughout his speeches from 1967 and 1968.
By 1968, King was also absolutely convinced that the movement for radical economic change must involve a broadly cross-racial and inter-regional coalition of communities. Many know that King’s goal at the time of his death was the Poor People’s Campaign. On March 16 in Los Angeles, less than three weeks before his assassination, along with Marlon Brando and Baldwin, King described the movement he was planning. For historical context, consider that on that same day, a Saturday, Robert Kennedy had been in the Caucus Room of the Senate Office Building in Washington D.C. declaring his candidacy for President. The day before had brought news that Stokely Carmichael and famed South African singer, Miriam Makeba, were engaged to be married. Meanwhile, on March 14th, across the Pacific, American infantry conducted raids on villages in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam, enacting what would slowly emerge as the horrors of the My Lai massacre. In Los Angeles that Saturday, after introductions by Baldwin and Brando, King explained:
It’s time now for something positive to take place. This is why we’re going to have a Campaign in Washington, this is why we’re going with poorpeople. I don’t know what we’ll be able to do in Washington, frankly. I know we have to do something. I know we have to take the inchoate rage of the ghetto and transform it into something constructive and creative… that is what we’re trying to do… so that for at least sixty days, nobody in this country can overlook the fact that there are poor people around. And we solicit your support as we go to Washington, not to beg, but to demand jobs or income now.
Far less well known than King’s increasingly vocal opposition to the American War in Vietnam and his emerging concentration on American poverty was his determination to create a broadly cross-racial and inter-cultural coalition. In fact, on Thursday, March 14, just two days before his remarks in Los Angeles, and against the advice of longtime colleagues in the movement such as Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson, and with James Lawson beckoning him to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers, King had organized a summit meeting with seventy-eight minority leaders. None of these leaders were black.
These delegates met with King in Atlanta at Paschal’s Motor Lodge and Restaurant, a black-owned business and cultural institution located on West Hunter Street—later re-named Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive—at the north edge of the Clark Atlanta University campus. In At Cannan’s Edge, Taylor Branch notes that delegates represented a wide and diverse array of American communities; they included Wallace Mad Bear Anderson of the Iroquois confederation, a member of César Chávez’s striking farmworkers in California, Tillie Walker and Rose Crow Flies High from the native peoples of the Dakotas, militant Chicano leaders such as Reies López Tijerina—hailed by some as “the Chicano Malcolm X”—and Corky Gonzales, longtime allies such as Myles Horton from the Highlander Center in Tennessee as well as more recent allies among poor whites like Peggy Terry who was then leading an integrated group called Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) based in the Uptown district of Chicago’s North Side.
King’s advisers rightly pointed out the unwieldy complexity of such a coalition which included untold conflicts between at times clashing interests, few of which King understood at all. It was just about all he could do to figure out the basic difference between Mexicans, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans. That King was pointing himself into such a complex array of interests in the name of his effort to make poverty visible testifies to his rapidly expanding vision. Branch recounts that when advisers “had checked repeatedly to make sure King wanted the hardscrabble white groups…the answer was always simple: ‘Are they poor?’”
Whether King would—or should—become a new founding father or not, Taylor Branch astutely remarked how the emotional command King assumed of his vision kept him together in an era of violent fragmentation. It kept him—at least in part—at peace in an age of mounting anger and despair. King’s late vision deployed a subtle mastery of radical dialectics, a way of integrating contradictions, of guiding and steering internal strife and tension. He refused to bow to narrow, racially based visions even among trusted advisers such as Hosea Williams who complained that his cross-racial coalition amounted to “taking our money and giving it to the Indians.” And, too, King was able to project and even embody order where others saw chaos. In his speech at Riverside Church on April 30, 1967, he noted the need for complexity and nuance even if it made people susceptible to “being mesmerized by uncertainty.” Straying from the appearance of simplicity and stable clarity was risky. Such risks were necessary, they were borne by real leaders who must offer people alternatives to simplicity, racial solipsism, and silence. In a way, and in thatway, it was economics at its pragmatic best, battling the forces that make our historical sight blind to what it’s most important for us to see, that can re-animate what we know and transform it from impenetrable stone back into living flesh we can touch, energy we can use. We can’t afford the obstructions of stone and the robbery of coronations. Because, as real leaders of the era such as King, Baldwin, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Doris Castle, Jerome Smith and many, many others all knew very well, in the end the living flesh and transformative energy always lead us to each other.
All well and good, as far as it goes.
But it was King’s relentless opposition to the Vietnam war which probably got him murdered, rather than his populist call for marches on Washington.
Were the 89-year-old King around today, I believe he would scathingly denounce America’s egregious forever wars and its equally egregious dumping of an extra $80 billion into our value-subtraction military this year.
America’s muscle-bound global military empire does not and cannot pay for itself. Three generations of this failed permawar economics has transformed the once-confident US into a Soviet-like economy with dilapidated infrastructure and a precarious population crushed by debt and lacking affordable health care.
King would have made mincemeat of status quo defenders of the Depublicrat War Party … who of course would never have lionized him had he carried exposing their complacent lies.
And what would King have thought of nearly $4 billion a year of US subsidies for an ethnic-supremacist apartheid state?
He chose April 4th for his 1967 speech on the same reasoning Orwell edited his book just before publication to begin on April 4, 1984…most people have missed it and his homage to freedom…he was hiding from Italian muscle-lee-knee loving partisans while trying to get out of Spain with the help of his wife…which years later confounded his equanimity when he saw Italy allowed into NATO…April 4th…
we have always been at war with…
Showdown for non violence… The last written piece by mlk…Look Magazine…April 16, 1968…mlk had just finished with final edits either on the 3rd or 4th…the front cover has Bobbie Kennedy on it…hard to find…if you go to the king center website and do a search you can see the notes and the three page article…
over the years…despite pissing off some klowns that be who disrupted my life and personal items disappear or get magically flooded…somehow that issue of the magazine has followed me around like some old girlfriend who keeps trying to stalk me…
whenever I get full of myself it seems do drop from the top of a bookshelf to my feet to read again…
Agree that King would have had something to say about the present USA economy.
However, suggesting that the USSR and other commies economies collapsed due poor infrastructure, crushing individual debt and expensive health care doesn’t jive. While the commie economies had no where near the level of complexity nor functioning consumer societies like that enjoyed by most Western nations, people didn’t have debt and they had universal health care. The level of infrastructure was commensurate with their low yielding economies. When their political systems collapsed there was no wide spread starvation and famine. People had no rents or mortgages to pay, health clinics still operated and most had access to land to grow food. They still had social cohesion.
I’m not supporting the soviet economic model nor stating that it was a viable long term alternative, and I’m certainly not supporting their political system, but economy wise they provided basic provision until people decided they wanted more, much more. As is their right. What’s rather surprising is how quietly into the night the governments went in the end. Given the trajectory of many neoliberal Western economies, one wonders if they will go so quietly.
Not a chance, IMHO.
When their political systems collapsed there was no wide spread starvation and famine.
That happened at the beginning of the systems with Uncle Joe’s imposed Ukraine famine in ’33 and the destruction of the traditional farming communities. In China the chairman had his great leap forward and cultural revolution and the resulting great china famine in ’59. I’d say neither system was friend and helper to the little guy, no matter what they claimed.
adding: The death counts for Uncle Joe’s famine range 2.4 – 4 millions. For the chairman’s famine, 30-40 millions.
I’m not arguing against the atrocious conduct of the two dictators and the resultant bloody mayhem. Pol Pot was far, far more vile in so many ways.
Yet, the Vietnamese commie regime was most certainly not.
Also, let’s not conflate 1930’s Soviet Union and the Soviet Union in 1989.
Nor am I arguing that the commie system was or is superior. I wouldn’t support a communist regime, full stop.
But, then again, nor do I veiw the entirety of the Eastern bloc commie nations as a monolithic experience of what a communist government could be. Just the same way I don’t view the capitalist systems in the West as a monolithic experience. If you want to take a per capita % of a famine toll then look no further than Ireland and what laissez faire capitalism produced. I don’t equate Ireland’s relationship today with the UK in light of 1845+. Not the same.
(Also, its pretty easy to overlook the catastrophic economic developments incurred by colonised nations that provided the raw materials for capitalist economies. Yet, very few people in the West would like to conflate past experiences with today’s.)
Yet the fact remains that when the Soviet Union and Eastern commie nations experienced political melt down, their peoples largely survived simply because they had housing without rentiers, systems wide medical coverage for everyone and serviceable, if basic, infrastructure.
I wonder if we in the West will fare as well when our political systems fail, as all eventually do.
Yes. I agree.
Thanks for the initial and subsequent reply. I’ve enjoyed reading your comments on many other topics as well here in NC land.
Collectivization (and Holodomor) are controversial topics within communist history because it is difficult to ascertain whether the deaths were intentional or not. It is certain that they were flawed policies that radically changed the economy of agricultural production within such a short time span, upending how people produced and received food. A more gradual shift would have softened the blow. It is also certain that these policies were greatly unpopular with peasants and farmers as they felt betrayed or unfairly cracked down upon, which is why the policies were reversed with the next leader. This reflected the top-down mentality of the ruling elite of the communist governments rather than a bottoms-up structure that would be more along the lines of what Marx envisioned for communism. The ruling elite were far more concerned with combating any traces of capitalism than fulfilling the will of the people, and the bureaucratic structure of their democracy made this gap possible.
The collapse of the USSR had to do with the attempts to increase labor productivity beyond industrialization, the liberalization of society and the economy to combat entrenched interest groups, and the desire for communism and the Soviet bloc to outcompete the full global capacity of capitalism.
As a centrally planned economy, the USSR did not rely heavily on the free market (there were historic stages where they relied certain parts of the economy on a free market, but this was usually seen as a capitalist stopgap between their feudalism and socialism/communism) and so the state directed production to provide the basic necessities for its people. This usage of public resources for the public good is what allowed its people to live without debt and with universal health care (and free education and housing, etc.) This also led to a mentality of provisioning resources for function and practicality over more Western ideas of excess, especially as the Soviet bloc was more or less economically sealed off from the global trade under capitalism.
Central planning has obvious benefits for a fledgling and budding government as they can direct resources for quick industrialization. There are successful examples of similar policies such as the New Deal or the heavy government investment behind the Asian Miracle. However, the problems began to grow after industrialization was achieved. The USSR was successful in worker-friendly results such as reduced labor hours that still managed to keep the same levels of productivity, but as growth rates dropped, the leaders and planners began enacting policies that attempted to bring those rates back up, at the cost of those worker-friendly results.
There was also that the USSR was in a cold war with the West. Both sides invested heavily into their militaries, weapons, and proxy armies and governments. These were resources that did not go into research and development that would grow consumerism near the level that the West enjoyed. As the people of the West enjoyed new technological goods, the people in the Soviet bloc could mostly only imagine what that life would be like. Anyways, the heavy investment into the military and the inherent role of the state in controlling production led to entrenched interest groups that controlled politics. Gorbachev, in response to the stagnation under Brezhnev, attempted to start a change of this status quo through liberalization that would go on to undermine the structure of the USSR and lead to its collapse.
Another factor for the USSR collapse was the Soviet bloc’s desire to outcompete the full global capacity of capitalism. It was always good propaganda and PR if the USSR’s communist society did anything better than Western capitalism. However, when the West began to appear more prosperous than the Soviets, the latter’s intelligensia wanted to match the former’s intelligensia’s standards of living. The problem was that the Western intelligensia was the 10% of their society that consumed all of the increases in living standards as the rest stagnated. The Soviet intelligensia were overrepresented in their democratic government and so the Soviet working class were not the main beneficiaries of politics during that time. By attempting to mimic the West, they also mimicked the exploitation of the West, which culminated in the Yeltsin years that completely undermined the public’s trust in public services for private interests.
When communism collapsed into capitalism, there was widespread death, mainly by people drinking themselves to death. It’s a similar phenomenon to what’s happening in America with the opioid crisis. A great loss of living standards was suffered through the transfer of wealth from the public to private. People had to deal with paying for rent and healthcare and more for what was subsidized or provided for free in the past. The lack of faith in a stable and secure society and economics allowed the death rate to overtake the birth rate and industries collapsed to a smaller state than before.
It is remarkable that one of the largest empires in the world collapsed willingly, but it was also a betrayal of the democratic will as Yeltsin and his men chose to ignore the majority that voted to remain communist. Perhaps that is the legacy of the USSR: an attempt at forging a democratic government that would serve the interests of the workers, but was unable to resolve their internal contradictions. Struggles between political factions and between capitalism and socialism/communism took priority over actually fulfilling the will of the workers. This led to a bureaucracy forming and becoming entrenched. Then, the communists were lured away from a modest egalitarian society built on a strong state presence for cohesion to an excessive Western society built on exploitation.
The USSR’s economy was built around the state providing orders and so had a central point for failure. Capitalism is more flexible by using individuals as cannon fodder. However, the capitalist system is falling apart more and more for more and more people. Accelerationist theories either predict a collapse of capitalism into neoreaction/neofeudalism or socialism. The latter is preferable, but it seems harder to see how that would be achieved as members of the ruling class (like Peter Thiel) are exploring neoreaction.
Anyways, other detailed and interesting analysis of Soviet collapse are found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EE-kCZnlGZU and https://therealmovement.wordpress.com/2017/11/21/how-labor-hours-reduction-brought-about-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union/
Thanks for this post – nice job. I thought the main article was excellent and highly quotable, but I also got a lot out of your informative comment as well.
If he were alive today we would not be in America’s egregious forever wars. That is why he was assassinated, he was changing the status quo.
To my pleasant surprise, I’ve heard and seen this more comprehensive view of King’s political views expressed lately in some MSM venues— well, PBS and NPR, anyway. I would echo the optimism of one pundit, who saw the various grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter, Fight for Fifteen, the teachers’ strikes, the nurses’ activism, the Dakota access pipeline protest, and the like as consistent with King’s own political trajectory. Plaster sainthood does not do the man justice.
NPR has run a few great stories highlighting MLK’s economic and political views. But that’s about it. Also, I think you forgot your closing /strong tag
Yes, just fixed that. Thanks!
Economic justice was always part of MLK Jr.’s message
Phase One was The Freedom Movement.
Phase Two is what he called in Memphis “economic equality”
then he was assassinated….
He said economic equality doesn’t mean that we all make the same wages or that we are all in the same class. It means that everybody has an equal chance to live a good life. That means education, health care, jobs, housing—all the basic things that everybody should have. He said in the richest country in the world there’s no reason we can’t do that and eliminate dire poverty.
People would say, “Well it costs too much.” Yet how many trillions of dollars do we spend on these forever wars? How many trillions do we spend on bank bailouts and corporate bailouts? You could have done away with poverty in the world, probably, if you used that money differently.
Thanks for this post. I’m not sure King’s economic vision has been entirely forgotten. Although the attempts to divorce the myth from the man are real. Specifically, I think Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 Dem presidential primary campaigns’ economic model was much like King’s, Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition being the economic alignment of diverse identity groups.
In 1988 Jackson won 12 primary/caucuses, including in unexpected states like Vermont and Alaska. He was endorsed by the auto worker union. He was briefly the front runner.
The Dem estab doesn’t seem on board with King’s economic platform, imo. Maybe because it’s too economically inclusive.
Thanks for this post.
BBC files false report on the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The other day the BBC claimed that Rev. King had been shot, collapsed and died when, in point of fact, Rev. King died later at the hospital, with his brutal death still shrouded in secrecy by the PuppetMedia and national security state!
From everything I’ve learned and read over the years, no anesthesia or pain killers of any kind were ever administered to Rev. King, therefore it is open to question as to whether he died from the gunshot or shock?!
At the time of the murder of Rev. King, the Memphis Fire and Police director — in charge of both the police department and fire department — was Frank Holloman, retired FBI agent who had been a manager with the FBI’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) during World War II.
While this is declassified, the actual names of the agents with the FBI/SIS are still redacted, still classified in the 18th year of the 21st century!
Why, at this late date?????
Because some of those agents, some still with the FBI and others then with the CIA, were on site several weeks prior, and on the same day, as the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas and later in California at the time of Sen. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination — tying together the continuing conspiracy of the murders of the Kennedy brothers and Rev. King!
I call upon the American government, the national security state, to declassify and release those names — and the PuppetMedia to push for their release!
(The FBI/SIS was headquartered at the Rockefeller Center in New York City, and reported to the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Nelson Rockefeller, whose administrator was George deMohrenschildt.)
> And what we must understand in the non-violent movement is that power without love is reckless. And love without power is sentimental. In other words, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.
Thanks for that.
Yves – Part of the appeal of your blog is that the comments follow the four requests under ‘Leave a Reply’ Jim Haygood makes good arguments, but his final gratuitous volley is not courteous and criticizes people rather than ideas. If this is where the blog is headed, I will steer clear.
Not sure Haygood broke any laws here. But I’ll use this as a good excuse to offer the following quote:
“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” – MLK, Letter from Birmingham Jail
adding: In this, King was referencing both Thoreau and Gandhi (who himself referenced Thoreau ) ; not a bad pair of men to emulate.
I’m not sure how you can claim this sentence to be “gratuitous” or “criticizing people rather than ideas”:
There is nothing in that statement which is personal. Haygood is criticizing (I assume) the current Israeli regime in terms which are clear-cut. On top of that, the criticism is highly relevant to King’s message.
Jimmy Dore has a good segment on this:
“In 1980, twenty-two years after King’s murder in Memphis,”, actually it was only twelve years later.
The degree to which the world changed for the worse in that time is almost unimaginable. King, Malcom X and both Kennedy assassinations murdered the residual promise of the New Deal and we’ve been living the consequences since.