>Martin Luther King Jr.: America's all-purpose icon >by Robert Jensen (ZNet Commentary / Jan 16) > >People who once branded King a threat to the nation will march today in MLK >Day parades. Cities around the country -- even places where King battled >segregation -- name streets after him and put up statues. People of all >colors invoke his name, legacy and memory in support of racial >justice.There's no doubt that this signals an improvement in race relations. >But to make King a symbol acceptable to most everyone, we have stripped him >of the depth and passion of his critique of white America and its >institutions. We conveniently have ignored the radical nature of King's >analysis, and in doing so we have lost an opportunity to see ourselves more >clearly. > >Michael Eric Dyson's important book, I May Not Get There with You, reminds >us that toward the end of his life, King underwent a dramatic transformation >from liberal reformer to radical who believed "a reconstruction of the >entire society" was necessary in the United States. But today, King gets >used as "a convenient political football by conservatives and liberals who >attempt to ultimately undermine his most radical threat to the status quo," >according to Dyson. > >If King were alive today, it is difficult to imagine him participating in >the triumphalism and jingoism that is so common, especially around questions >of the "victory" of the United States in economic and foreign policy. I >suspect King would offer a different analysis. Consider this statement from >a 1967 speech: > >"When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are >considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme >materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered." > >Our political "leaders" today preach that "free" markets and corporate >capitalism can bring prosperity to all and that U.S. "humanitarian" >instincts can be a force for peace. King preached a different analysis of >the effects of our economic system and foreign policy. > >The "glaring contrast of poverty and wealth" that King warned about in 1967 >has grown steadily wider. Around the world, people in grassroots struggles >are resisting the corporate globalization that pushes more people into >poverty and hastens the destruction of natural resources. Resistance to >various U.S.-dominated trade regimens goes on daily around the world, >usually under the radar of mainstream news media. My guess is that King >would be part of that resistance. > >Today the United States is still "the greatest purveyor of violence in the >world," just as King asserted in 1967. Sometimes that violence is through >direct military assaults, such as the Bush administration's illegal and >deadly invasion of Panama in 1989 or the Clinton administration's equally >illegal and counterproductive bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. Sometimes we >just provide the weapons and money, such as the ongoing attacks in Colombia >being paid for by the United States under the cover of a phony drug war. My >guess is that King would oppose such violence. > >Of course if King were alive today, no one can know for sure what specific >policy positions he would take. But we can remember the values that >energized and motivated him and the movements of which he was a part, and we >can apply those principles. > >As the incoming Bush administration talks of letting defense contractors >line their pockets with billions more public dollars for an unworkable and >unnecessary missile-defense shield, we might remember King's assertion that >a nation which spends "more money on military defense than on programs of >social uplift is approaching spiritual death." > >As our unsustainable affluence and orgy of consumption continue to fuel >economic and energy policies that impoverish others around the world and >threaten the very existence of the planet, we might remember that King >called for "a radical revolution of values" in the United States, a "shift >from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society." > >On this MLK Day, many people will feel comfortable talking about King's >dream of a world where the color of our skin doesn't matter. But fewer will >be so comfortable talking about his analysis of power and call to "move >beyond the prophesying of a smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm >dissent." > >On this MLK Day we should remember that King said our country was on "the >wrong side of a world revolution" of oppressed peoples. > >On this MLK Day, we should ask: How long can we ignore King's radical >analysis and still pretend to honor him? >---- >Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at >Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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