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Vol. 11, No. 1, 2012
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martin luther king-- the dream in the balance



Gary Olson chairs the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA.


Our lives begin to end the day
we are silent about the things that matter.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On October 16, 2011 the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. The 30-foot tall, granite statue sits on a four acre, $120 million dollar memorial on the rim of the Tidal Basin on the National Mall.

Martin Luther King, Jr.I appreciate why ordinary citizens rejoiced in the ceremony and it's gratifying that this shamefully belated tribute now exists. Nonetheless, I suspect that if King were alive he would have spurned the event in favour of sitting in and marching with the Wall Street Occupiers in New York's financial district. It's likely he would have been pepper sprayed, handcuffed and arrested -- after all, he was arrested 30 times from 1956 to 1968 -- and conceivably written "Letter from a Lower Manhattan Jail."

In an article about the Memorial titled "Dr.King Weeps From His Grave," Princeton Professor Cornell West writes that King would be issuing a clarion call for "a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens." Every honest person knows that the Dr. King now memorialized in the nation's capital and whose birthday is celebrated on the third Monday in January as a federal holiday bears virtually no likeness to the radical activist who was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

King has been transformed into a historical relic, public relations symbol and remote -- almost cartoonish -- mythological figure. Prof. West rightly terms this "Santa Clausification," the process by which we "domesticate, disinfect, deodorize, sanitize and make safe" King's life
and legacy. The moneyed interests have severely circumscribed King's image to the less-militant sounding, iconic "I Have a Dream" King from 1963 and tossed the post-1963 King -- the more politically mature, protest-savvy, and activist King -- down the memory hole. Why has this
occurred? Because the-powers-that-be fear that the faintest echo of King's actual message threatens to awaken the public's quiescent sense of empathy and moral outrage, thus endangering entrenched power and privilege.

Does anyone doubt that today King would be organizing picket lines at the very same sweatshop, child labor-using, outsourcing, union-busting, war-profiteering corporations now seeking to burnish their image by associating themselves with a severely expurgated version of the man.
At a pre-memorial event in Washington, D.C., organized by the MLK Memorial Foundation, several people were recognized. The list of honorees included corporate types from General Motors and Walt Disney to General Electric and Verizon. (Note: During the weekend one could toast King's memory with a Dream cocktail, consisting of bourbon, apple cider and honey garnished with a cinnamon stick. Hot DC restaurants created other special promotional cocktails including ‘The King's Speech’ for only $11.95. The chef at the PS7 restaurant paired pecan crusted chicken with a frozen drink and called it ‘The Dream.’ Diners were invited to raise a glass in honor of Dr. King "in the city where dreams come true . . . ").MLK Memorial

I mention this because the odious behaviour of these corporate predators typifies what King sought to rectify. For example, Wal-Mart, which ponied up 10% of the funds to build the memorial, vehemently opposes every position that King advanced on behalf of worker's rights. Recall that at his death King was in Memphis to support 1,300 striking sanitation workers in their efforts to unionize. In his very last sermon he pushed for economic sanctions against Coca Cola, Sealtest and Wonder Bread because of their unfair labour practices in Memphis. He was also
organizing a ‘multi-racial army of the poor’ to march on Washington, D.C. to demand an economic bill of rights for all, including income, housing and jobs.

To the complaint, often coming from black Americans, that he should refrain from speaking on issues other than racism, King replied "When I hear such questions, I have been greatly saddened, for they mean that the inquirers have never really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, that question suggests that they do not know the world in which we live.

No wonder F.B.I Director J. Edgar Hoover despised, wiretapped and slandered King as "an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation." Hoover famously pronounced King "the most dangerous man in America." For those residing within what political analysts David Peterson and Edward S. Herman unerringly term our "unelected dictatorship of money," Hoover's claim wasn't off the mark. (Earlier, Hoover had declared the anarchist Emma Goldman "the most dangerous woman in America").

King, a democratic socialist, is the leader who declared "A nation that continues to spend year after year more money on military defense than on programs for social uplift is approaching spiritual death." And by 1968 King stopped advocating piecemeal changes, saying that "For years I have labored with the idea of refining the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you've got to have a reconstruction of entire society, a revolution of values." He was skillfully braiding together war, racism and economic exploitation and wrote in a posthumously published essay, ". . . only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather than in men or faulty operations." Speaking to a New York Times reporter in 1968, King said "In a sense you
could say we're involved in the class struggle." It should be obvious why not a single one of his most poignant statements is chiseled into the new Memorial's wall.

Does anyone doubt that King would be in the forefront of opposing U.S. imperialistic wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond? On U.S. foreign policy, King said "I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken
clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." Is there any doubt that he would be calling out the first black president and both political parties on their fealty to corporate and military power?

There's no doubt. And that's why he was "dangerous" is now "safely dead." The goal of this truth laundering project is captured in these powerful verses penned by the African-American poet/musician Carl Wendell Hines, a poem which has been closely associated with King:

Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: they
cannot rise to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.

Despite the Herculean efforts by the masters of our universe to render Dr. King's legacy a safe and hence irrelevant one, the growing refusal of citizens to suffer their multiple and just grievances in silence, encourages me to believe that King's righteous demands for justice remain as abiding now as in 1968.

Also by Gary Olson:
Unmaking War, Remaking Man
Rifkin and Singer


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