Martin Luther King’s America Redux: “The Greatest Purveyor of Violence in the World”

Yves here. Comparatively few recall that Martin Luther King fell into disfavor in the US when he became an early critic of the War in Vietnam. King described how the cost of the conflict fell disproportionately on young black men and that military spending drained resources from social programs. But he also stated that as an advocate of non-violence, he had to stand for it in all settings, which included opposing US aggression abroad.

We’re fans of Liz Theoharis, and we hope you appreciate her use of the anniversary of King’s Beyond Vietnam, and his assassination a year later, to see how little has changed in the past half-century plus.

By Liz Theoharis. Originally published at TomDispatch

Fifty-four years ago, standing at the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his now-famous “Beyond Vietnam” sermon. For the first time in public, he expressed in vehement terms his opposition to the American war in Vietnam. He saw clearly that a foreign policy defined by aggression hurt the poor and dispossessed across the planet. But it did more than that. It also drained this country of its moral vitality and the financial resources needed to fight poverty at home. On that early spring day, exactly one year before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King warned that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” a statement that should ring some bells in April 2021.

In his sermon, Dr. King openly wrestled with a thorny problem: how to advance nonviolent struggle among a generation of Black youth whose government had delivered little but pain and empty promises. He told the parishioners of Riverside Church that his years of work, both in the South and the North, had opened his eyes to why, as a practitioner of nonviolence, he had to speak out against violence everywhere — not just in the U.S. — if he expected people to take him at his word. As he explained that day:

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems… But they asked, and rightly so, ‘what about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

A Global Pandemic Cries Out for Global Cooperation

In 2020, the planet was swept up in a devastating pandemic. Millions died, tens of millions suffered. It was a moment, in Reverend King’s spirit, that would have been ideal for imagining new global approaches to America’s ongoing wars of the past century. It would similarly have been the perfect moment to begin imagining global cooperative approaches to public health, growing debt and desperation, and intellectual property rights. This especially given that the Covid-19 vaccines had been patented for mega-profits and were available only to some on this suffering planet of ours, a world vulnerable to a common enemy in which the fault lines in any country threaten the safety of many others.

Internationally, at the worst moment imaginable, U.S.-backed institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund continued to demand billions of dollars in debt payments from impoverished countries in the Global South, only forgiving them when their governments fell into step behind the U.S. and Europe, as Sudan has recently done. Moreover, Washington had a golden opportunity when the search for a Covid-19 vaccine threatened to change patent laws and force pharmaceutical companies to work with low-income nations. Instead, the U.S. government backed exclusive deals with Big Pharma, ensuring that vaccine apartheid would become rampant in this country, as well as across the rest of the world. By late March, 90% of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered had gone to people in wealthy or middle-income countries, with vaccine equity within those countries being a concern as well.

Another menacing development is the thematically anti-Chinese legislation being developed in Congress right now. Three weeks ago, just as the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was nearly across the finish line, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was quietly laying the groundwork for another major legislative package focused on further inflaming a rising cold war with China. For Republicans, legislative action on China is in theory an absolute bullseye, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already made it clear that his support for Schumer’s bill will only come if it includes a large increase — once again — in “defense” spending.

The timing and tenor of this debate, steeped as it is in Sinophobia, economic brinkmanship, and military hawkishness, is more than troublesome. Just a few weeks ago, eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were gunned down in Atlanta by a man plagued by his own toxic mix of religious extremism, white supremacy, and sexism. This followed a year in which there were close to 4,000 documented anti-Asian hate incidents in this country, fueled by a president who blamed the Chinese for Covid-19 and regularly used racist nicknames for the pandemic like the “Chinese virus” and the “kung flu.”

In addition, an aggressive and potentially militarized anti-China bill is irresponsible when tens of thousands continue to contract the virus daily here at home and we are only beginning to understand the long-term economic consequences of the pandemic. At a time when there are 140 million poor or low-income people in this country, a fully revived and funded war not against China but against poverty should be seen as both a moral responsibility and a material necessity. At least now, poverty seems to be getting some attention in the pandemic era, but how sad that it took the disastrous toll of Covid-19 on American jobs, housing, and nutrition to put poverty on the national agenda. Now that it’s there, though, we can’t allow it to be sidelined by short-sighted preparations for a new cold war that could get hot.

Cruel Manipulation of the Poor

An inhumane approach to foreign policy and especially wars in distant lands was only half of the spiritual death that Dr. King warned about back in 1967: the other half was how the militarization of this society and a distortion of its moral priorities had brought war and immiseration home. That was what he meant in his sermon when spoke about the “cruel manipulation of the poor.”

In 1967, King saw how American soldiers were fighting in Vietnam “on the side of the wealthy and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.” That hell was being created both in the Agent Orange-saturated lands of Vietnam and Laos and, in a different fashion, in so many poor and abandoned communities in the United States.

Dr. King mourned the “brutal solidarity” of disproportionately poor Black, Brown, and white Americans fighting together against the poor in Vietnam, only to return to a nation parts of which were still committed to inequality, discrimination, and racism (despite the struggle and advances of the Civil Rights movement) and remarkably blind to their suffering. In those last years of the 1960s, he watched as the promise of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was betrayed by massive investments in what President Dwight D. Eisenhower had first dubbed a “military-industrial complex,” and in a reactionary narrative, which would only become more emboldened in the years to come, that blamed the poor for their poverty.

Sadly, the decades to follow would, in so many ways, affirm his fears. And yet — to note a spark of hope amid the pandemic gloom — the last year has finally awakened an earnest concern on the part of some in the government to revive the spiritual health of the nation by committing in significant ways to the material health of the poor.

Indeed, ARPA’s investments in poor and low-income communities should be celebrated, but the question remains: Why is the Biden administration’s Covid-19 legislation so historic and rare? Why is it so unprecedented for the U.S. to invest $1.9 trillion in our own people in a country that, in these last years, has squandered 53% of every federal discretionary dollar on the Pentagon? How is it that we’ve become so steeped in a militarized economy that we don’t bat an eye when politicians propose more funding for the military, even as they say spending on human welfare is irresponsible and unaffordable?

In the lead-up to the passage of ARPA, stalwart old guard Republicans attacked the legislation. In an op-ed for the National Review, Senator Marco Rubio denounced increased welfare spending as “not pro-family” and repeated the tired myth that welfare, by supposedly creating dependency, actually breaks up the nuclear family. So immersed was Rubio in his disdain for the poor that he punctuated his piece with this nonsensical claim: “If pulling families out of poverty were as simple as handing moms and dads a check, we would have solved poverty a long time ago.” Is it really necessary to affirm in 2021 that more money in people’s pockets actually does mean less poverty?

Meanwhile, longtime senior Democratic economic adviser and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers argued that the Covid-19 bill was the “least responsible” policy in four decades. He had, of course, long been a champion of the austerity policies that helped lead to enormous increases in inequality and poverty in this country. (Many other economists dispute his claim.) It’s telling as well that members of the Biden Administration have distanced themselves from him.

Pro-austerity and anti-poor economic policies promoted by influential figures like Rubio and Summers are, in part, what’s kept America in a spiritual death spiral since the days of Dr. King. A country now constantly haunted by death has long been consumed by violence and crisis. Sometimes, it’s the literal physical violence of another mass shooting, driven by rage, hate, and desperation, or the further militarization of the border, or the use of militarized police violence to clear the most vulnerable from homeless encampments. Other times it’s policy violence, whether involving punitive work requirements for food stamps or the refusal to expand Medicaid and make healthcare available and affordable to all. And always, in the background, as Dr. King would certainly have noted, if he were giving his sermon today, is the violence of America’s never-ending wars that have eaten so many trillion dollars and killed and displaced so many people in distant lands.

Of particular concern today is the potential death of democracy that the insurrection of January 6th at the Capitol seemed so ominously to signal. I will never forget listening to a long-time organizer in Flint, Michigan, explain that “before they took away our water, they had to take away our democracy.”

This was true in the fight for racial justice, welfare, and decent wages during the days of Dr. King and it’s no less true in our many human rights struggles today. After all, since 2020, at least 45 states have introduced voter suppression bills, with the recent one in Georgia being only the most egregious and publicized. Such legislation is being proposed and passed by extremist politicians who understand that limiting access to the ballot through racism and a demonization of the poor is the surest way to prevent real and lasting change.

A Moral Revolution of Values

Immediately after cautioning about the spiritual death of the nation in that classic sermon of his, Dr. King made an abrupt and hopeful turn, reminding his audience that a moral revolution of values was urgently needed and that “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

As both a preacher and theologian, he was acutely aware of the story of Jesus. After all, Dr. King, like the Jesus of the Bible, knew that a transformation of society in the image of peace would involve a full-scale reordering of priorities, dependent on a willingness to reject a politics of death and embrace one of life.

For that to happen, however, society would need to be flipped right side up and that, in Jesus’s time, in Dr. King’s, or in our own, represents a herculean task, one never likely to happen based on the goodwill of those in power. It requires the collective efforts of a movement of people committed to saving the heart and soul of their society.

In this moment following Easter Sunday 2021, 53 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., may we listen to his concerns and honor his enduring hopes by committing ourselves to building exactly such a movement here and now.

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  1. zagonostra

    One notable defect that I find in articles dealing with MLK is the omission of William Pepper. I always do a search to see if his name pops up before I read an article on the subject. His name should be known by all people who purport to be educated on the assassination. Pepper proved a U.S court that the CIA and other gov’t actors were involved in MLK’s assassination. This is not conspiracy, speculation, or surmise. It was adjudicated.

    Below is from the NYT, not some fringe newspaper.

    After four weeks of testimony and one hour of deliberation, the jury in the wrongful-death case found that Loyd Jowers as well as ”others, including governmental agencies” had been part of a conspiracy. ..Mr. Pepper said federal, state and Memphis governmental agencies, as well as the news media conspired in the assassination….’We all thought it was a cut and dried case with the evidence that Mr. Pepper brought to us, that there were a lot of people involved, everyone from the C.I.A., military involvement, and Jowers was involved.

    1. LowellHighlander

      Thanks, zagonostra: your posting helps to confirm that which I’ve long suspected. Namely, the CIA, NSC, and other permanent agencies in the Executive Branch of the Federal government have, since WWII, been using their hidden powers to squash any reordering of Federal spending and policy away from war and support of U.S. transnationals, both abroad and at home. Thus, I maintain that we can never realize a reordering towards humane ends without breaking these agencies’ powers. MLK Jr. deserves no less.

    2. Stormcrow

      It is disturbing, as you say, that William Pepper is too often ignored, although I’m afraid he could sometimes seem over the top. Another voice that needs to be heeded is that of James W. Douglass: “Almost 32 years after King’s murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, a court extended the circle of responsibility for the assassination beyond the now deceased James Earl Ray, the man sentenced for the crime.” This eye-opening article, which deserves to be more widely known, appeared in The Christian Century, March 15, 2000, pp. 308-313.

      The King Assassination: After Three Decades, Another Verdict

      1. zagonostra

        Thanks for link, I find to below noteworthy from the article.

        David Morphy, the only juror to grant an interview, said…After 31 years, my mind is at ease. So I can sleep now, knowing that some kind of peace has been brought to the King family. And that’s the best part about it.”

        Problem is although this juror did his job and can rest at ease, America can’t and I can’t. Every MLK day that is celebrated that does not acknowledge the real facts behind MLK’s assasination, leaves me uneasy.

        1. Stormcrow

          Thanks. Note that almost no one wants to pursue the CIA connection to the King assassination that Douglass points to. The same kind of connection is arguably there in the cases of JFK, RFK, and Malcolm X. I’m afraid that this is one of the “real facts behind the MLK assassination” that is rarely acknowledged.

  2. jackiebass

    When the Vietnam War ended I thought that finally we could use the war money to spend on much needed domestic programs. What a mistake that turned out to be.I was clueless about the powerful forces that were promoting perpetual war. Not unlike in Orwells 1984. What actually happened changed my thinking about our federal government.Ike warned us but we ignored his warning.Imagine how great our country could actually be if even a portion of our bloated military spending was used on domestic programs. If that had happened , no country would be able to compete with us. Instead the US is slowly going backwards as a great country. In fact this regression seems to be accelerating. Smedley Butler wrote a short 20 page book called War Is A Racket. It is spot on.

  3. Rod

    Excellent post as an excellent reminder of where our eyes on the prize should be.
    The opportunity missed, by pidgeon holing the vaccine for profit, is a doubleing of the tradegy.

    It requires the collective efforts of a movement of people committed to saving the heart and soul of their society.

    I worry that 50 years of a ‘Bad Patterning’ has cut a deep groove.

    An everyday commitment

  4. The Rev Kev

    Martin Luther King Jr. was only 39 years old when he was shot to death in 1968 though his autopsy showed that he “had the heart of a 60 year old” due to stressful living. But I do wonder what would have happened if that bullet has missed and that Martin Luther King Jr had lived on. If he had only lived to 65 yrs of age, he could have added his voice to American life under Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Snr and Clinton. You can only imagine what words he would have said during all those times. He could have had such an impact.

  5. David

    I really do wonder whether this kind of article is just a disguised form of American Exceptionalism with the labels reversed. It’s just a new form of USA USA#1! Instead of America being exceptionally good, it’s exceptionally evil. (The title has nothing to do with the rambling content of the story, as far as I can see).
    In reality, the US is neither the most wonderful country in the world, nor is it the worst. It’s not the most violent, nor the least violent. It just makes the most noise. There are better places to live and there are plenty of worse ones. There’s far more violence and insecurity in many countries than in the US: to take only the most recent example, have a look at the news stories about the Islamic State’s attacks in Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique.

    How about USA USA #17! for a change.

    1. Weimer

      I had known of the connection between MLK’s turn against the V war and subsequent assassination for some time now – partly because of following James Douglass. In his book on JFK’s murder, he makes the connection to MIC very understandable and unmistakable.
      To reduce the description of all those atrocities to no more than some noise about exceptionalism is to seriously miss – or be unwilling to see – the horror of it all.

    2. Alex Cox

      David’s observations are untrue. The United States has the largest military in the world, by far. It imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any other nation. It is the only country (apart from its NATO allies) engaged in bombing multiple other nations. Its support for right-wing coups in Latin America is entirely bipartisan. The US also employs sanctions against countries which total one third of the world’s population: sanctions, which target the poorest, are another weapon of war.

      Dr. King’s statement that the US is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world remains true today. He also observed, “Either we will learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools” — something to remember as the US ramps up the likelihood of war in the Ukraine.

  6. John Anthony La Pietra

    Thanks for highlighting this speech. There are places online where you can see the text of the speech, and find audio of Dr. King delivering it. Two I know of are:


    But it is also good to read out loud for ourselves. My local Green group sponsored such a reading on Saturday — a day early for the anniversary, since April 4 was Easter Sunday this year and everybody was going to be busy. Here’s a recording of our reading via Zoom.

  7. David in Santa Cruz

    I have a copy of Dr. King’s April 4, 1967 “A Time To Break Silence” speech at Riverside Church in NYC next to me as I type. It should be read aloud each April 4 throughout America, because King’s words still ring true. Nothing has fundamentally changed in 54 years.

  8. Eclair

    I was a young woman in the 1960’s, busy with graduating college, career, marriage, children. A ‘liberal’ but rather smug; after all, I had ‘made it’ from a working class background.

    It was decades later, in some mid-western city, touring a museum where they had a history exhibit, by decade. All the assassinations of the 60’s were listed: Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X. Living through them, one by one, somehow they seemed unrelated. Looking back at an entire decade, the connections became apparent.

  9. Anthony Stegman

    It is my view that due to slavery, genocide, imperialism, and mass profiteering the karma in these United States is so bad that will be impossible to achieve any of Dr. King’s dreams. Instead, we are fated for more and more suffering. Unrelenting. In perpetuity.

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