As millions take to Twitter to exalt Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy, it is critical that we understand the full picture of King’s life. In the years before his assassination, King’s radicalism on matters such as economic inequality and militarism was uncommon for the time and posed a threat to the northern liberal elites who heap praise on his memory today.
In the spring of 1967, King spoke out vehemently against the Vietnam War. He could no longer abide the hypocrisy of preaching non-violence to his fellow Americans at home, while a bloody American-led war was waged abroad. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” King argued in the speech.
The liberal news media lashed out against King in response to his denunciation of the Vietnam War. The New York Times Editorial Board called King’s anti-war sentiments a “wasteful and self-defeating” diversion from the civil rights cause. The Washington Post Editorial Board declared that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.”
In total, 168 newspapers denounced King’s anti-Vietnam speech the day after he gave it.
President Lyndon Johnson was likewise appalled by King’s words. Johnson cut ties immediately, reportedly saying to confidants, “What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me? We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the war on poverty. What more does he want?”
But King was not to be stopped. He soon began to address the matter of economic disparity.
In late 1967, King announced plans for a Poor People’s Campaign, which would include a march on Washington and the construction of a shanty town on the Washington mall to draw lawmakers’ attention to the plight of the needy.
And just weeks before his death, King gave a speech in New York City about the entrenched class divisions that he saw in the country. “One America is flowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality,” King said. While the other America “has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”
Noam Chomsky has frequently criticized the narrow scope of MLK Day celebrations, which focus primarily on his “I have a dream” speech. There is much more to the man, argues Chomsky. He “went on to confront class issues, and as he did, his popularity and reputation among northern liberal declined.”
As we uphold the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, we must remember him as more than a figurehead of the civil rights movement. He was also a harsh critic of US militarism, and an advocate for the rights of poor people across the nation.
Dr. King’s vision of the Poor People’s Campaign is being revived today by William J. Barber III, the North Carolina preacher who is known for starting the Moral Monday Movement.