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MLK: Radical Pacifist, Not Car Salesman

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MLK: Radical Pacifist, Not Car Salesman

(Courtesy of Julia Comerford/The Fordham Ram)

(Courtesy of Julia Comerford/The Fordham Ram)

(Courtesy of Julia Comerford/The Fordham Ram)

(Courtesy of Julia Comerford/The Fordham Ram)


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By Joergen Ostensen

(Courtesy of Julia Comerford/The Fordham Ram)

When most Americans think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they think of a civil rights leader who decried racism on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They think of the abstract concept of a dream where blacks and whites live together in harmony. They think of him as someone who brought about change in American society, paving the way for the presidency of Barack Obama. Dr. King has been sanitized into a symbol for social progress in America.

Dr. King’s voice recently appeared in a Super Bowl advertisement for Dodge Ram trucks, which is a clear misappropriation of what he stood for. Americans have come to perceive King in a form inconsistent with his message. As Cornel West points out, “He undergoes Santa Clauseification. That’s one of the ways which [they] domesticate people who are on fire for justice.” The ad featuring King equates his message with materialism, evidence it is being stripped of its intended meaning. In reality, King was one of the most radical voices of dissent in the 1960s. He believed that love for one’s neighbor should be the basis of human society. His conception of love is perhaps his most radical and important idea, but it does not enter into the normal discourse about his message. In his controversial “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King said, “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response…Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”

The application of King’s notion of love to politics is perhaps best summed up by what Cornel West once said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That meant he was far from content with merely attaining legal equality for African Americans. He was the leader of a non-violent campaign against the existence of poverty. He reinterpreted scripture and applied that to politics. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see than an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” he said. King did not believe that such a society could coexist with the militarism of the Vietnam era. The war undermined social progress. In “Beyond Vietnam,” King explained his opposition to the war, “This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love,” he said.

Opposition to the war put King in directly against Lyndon Johnson and many others who had supported King with respect to civil rights. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War is often conveniently left out of contemporary discourse. Similarly, so is his opposition to materialism. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. 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,” he said. Given that, it is very likely that Dr. King would have been incensed if he were alive to see the Super Bowl commercial where one of his sermons was used to sell Dodge Ram trucks

People forget that King was surveilled by the FBI because they considered him to be a threat to national security. Most people do not even know that at the end of his life Americans did not approve of Dr. King. After he gave the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, he was accused of being a communist and someone who had overstepped by expanding beyond the Civil Rights Movement. According to Politico, in 1967 less than a third of Americans rated King favorably. If Americans want to consider King one of our national heroes, then it is necessary to confront the fact that he would more than likely still be in the streets protesting.
In “Beyond Vietnam,” which was delivered at the Riverside Church one year to the day before he was killed, King issued an indictment of American society. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” The United States continues to spend exorbitant amounts of money on the military-$611 billion in 2017.

Americans need to start asking themselves what King would say about what has happened recently, in the context of the connection he drew between militarism and the oppression of the poor. We need to ask: Would King have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The answer would invariably be no, and yet the issue is rarely raised. Dr. King’s dream of a society based on love for each other is only a possibility if we accept all of what he stood for.

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MLK: Radical Pacifist, Not Car Salesman