Born 94 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. is famous for leading the civil rights movement that ended racial segregation and the denial of voting rights to Black people in the former slave states. But it is often forgotten that he also campaigned against poverty for black and white alike, and was a fierce critic of US imperialism.
January 15 marked the 94th anniversary of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth.
A protestant Baptist minister who began preaching in Montgomery, Alabama at the age of 25 in 1954, King first became involved in politics the following year as one of the leaders of the boycott of racially-segregated bus services in the city the following year.
In 1957, King was elected the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Based in Atlanta, Georgia, the SCLC played a leading role in the campaign to repeal the ‘Jim Crow’ laws, passed in former slave states following the American Civil War, that instituted segregation and effectively disenfranchised black people from voting.
Following victories in the civil rights campaign, in 1968 King and the SCLC took a bold step forward by organising the Poor People’s Campaign. He envisioned “a multiracial army of the poor” to march on Washington for mass acts of civil disobedience until Congress legislated for an “economic bill of rights” for those in poverty.
On March 29 of that year King, then aged 39, traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike by public sanitary workers. His flight was delayed by a bomb threat against the aircraft, and in his last speech at the city’s Mason Temple on April 3, King was fatalistic about the prospect of his assassination, saying that like Moses, he had “been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind.”
At 6 pm on April 4, James Earl Ray fatally shot King as he stood on the balcony of the room he habitually stayed in at the Lorraine Motel. He died an hour later in the hospital.
A year before his death, at the Riverside Church in New York City, King declared it was “time to break the silence“ over the US war in Vietnam.
“As I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path,” he said, leaving him “greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.”
King said the US military build-up in Vietnam had resulted in the abandonment of poverty alleviation programmes at home.
“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube,” King said.
As for his crusade against segregation, “We have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools,” he said.
In its policy towards Vietnam from 1945, when resistance forces led by Ho Chi Minh liberated the country from Japanese occupation, King said the US “fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long” by helping France re-colonise.
“We rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination,” established by “clearly indigenous forces that included some communists” King said — pointing out that just a quarter of the National Liberation Front, derided by the US as “Viet Cong” were communists.
He went on to condemned how the US “pattern of suppression” and need to “maintain social stability for our investments” explained the presence of US “military advisors” in Venezuela, “counterrevolutionary action” by troops in Guatemala, the use of helicopter gunships against guerrillas in Cambodia and why “American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.”
“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over,” King said presciently.
But even before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the young King voiced praise for revolutionaries “who have the insight to look beyond the inadequacies of the old order and see the necessity for the new.”
In his speech to the National Baptist Convention in St Louis, Missouri on September 9 1954, King compared Christ’s teachings to the works of ancient Greek philosopher Plato, German communist visionary Karl Marx and American utopian socialist Edward BeIlamy, who foresaw a time when “the inequalities of monopoly capitalism would be blotted out and all men would live on a relatively equal plane”.
King compared St John the Apostle’s vision of a “new Jerusalem” to the worldwide struggle, then at its height, against “the old order in the form of colonialism and imperialism.”