“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” MLK, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence (1967)
Few major figures in recent American history have had the evolution of their thinking as distorted by those who call themselves supporters as Martin Luther King, Jr. Two aspects of his critique of American society that are perhaps most eloquently articulated in his speech, Beyond Vietnam, made 50 years ago this April 4th, materialism and militarism, are almost always ignored in celebrations of his legacy.
In the current context, understanding and reclaiming this critique has become more important than ever, as Phyllis Bennes of the Institute of Policy Studies explained it to Alternet, “I think that the lesson from his ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech is precisely his recognition of the necessity of building the links, understanding: you cannot separate racism from war, poverty from racism or war from poverty.”
The reception King’s speech received from major media at the time was uniformly negative. The Washington Post accused him of “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy” while the New York Times editorialized that “to divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating” and suggested that the morality of the war was “less clear-cut than he suggests”.
In the years since, Dr. King’s growing consciousness of these links has been sanitized as he’s been embraced by the mainstream as a ‘good’ advocate for civil rights as opposed to more radical voices of the era like the Black Panthers, who were more forceful in their denunciations of capitalism and American and European imperialism.
Commentators on the right and even some who call themselves moderates often decry the protests of today as inconvenient or even violent and point to Dr. King as going about resisting evil in the right way. They highlight his supporters’ pacifism while ignoring their militancy. It wasn’t as if there was no violence or disruption in the Civil Rights era, just that most of the former was directed at non-violent acts of civil disobedience engaged in by protesters, like sitting at a lunch counter or at the front of a bus.
Although the kind of unpunished violence used by ordinary citizens in attacking the civil rights protesters of King’s era is mostly gone today, the violence directed by police and private security forces at peaceful protests is still very much alive in the United States and the West more generally.
Connecting the Battles against Materialism and Racism
Coming together in the spirit that Dr. King called for, starting on the anniversary of the Beyond Vietnam speech, a variety of groups have called for actions and perhaps more importantly, education, culminating in widespread protest and a general strike on May 1st, International Worker’s Day.
Although a holiday in most of the world, May Day as it’s often called, isn’t recognized as such in the majority of English-speaking countries, including the United States. Ironic, considering it’s the country where this celebration of working people was created after the Haymarket Square strikes in Chicago in 1886 that had a high cost in blood but led to the 8-hour workday some of us still enjoy today.
Central to the current campaign, called ‘Beyond the Moment’ and organized under the collective banner of ‘The Majority’, is the inspiration provided by the policy ideas and momentum of the Movement for Black Lives and the activism of the Fight for $15, two groups central to the new coalition. The Majority also includes environmentalists, Indigenous rights activists, unions, antiwar groups and a wide variety of immigrant rights groups.
“We are going to march together… to defend the rights of all of us. Even the right to organize, the right to unionize, the right for a healthy environment,” Rosi Carrasco of Chicago Organized Communities Against Deportations explained in a recent interview, “We want to send a strong message that we are not going to allow this administration to divide us, that we want respect for our rights.”
Although Donald Trump will get most of the credit for bringing these diverse groups together in opposition to the policies of his government and the corporatist U.S. Congress, this has been building for some time. In Standing Rock, we saw environmentalists join with those struggling for Indigenous rights and in Ferguson, Missouri, we saw low paid service workers associated with the Fight for $15 come out in support of Black Lives Matter to protest against police brutality in their city.
Historically, it can’t be denied that successful protest requires such alliances. By dividing itself on the basis of individual interests and forgetting about collective action, the left, especially in North America, has consistently failed to find anything but temporary success or short term solutions. Still, the election of the current Grifter in Chief in the U.S., and the troubling rise of rightwing populism generally, could be what was needed to unify the left.
“We can’t say, ‘hey don’t let ICE on your campus’ and not call out over-policing of people of color on college campuses,” Marisa Franco of another organization that has thrown its weight into the Beyond the Moment campaign, Mijente, recently told The Nation.
Although some of the more radical among them, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have also called on their workers to participate in the May 1st strike, they are coordinating their actions with groups like the the Food Chain Worker’s Alliance (FCWA), a non-union advocacy group that probably represents a larger share of workers than all America’s unions combined.
A press release from Movimiento Cosecha quoted Jose Oliva of the FCWA explaining who they are and their members’ often overlooked importance to the economy is organizing workers from farms to restaurants, many of whom will risk their jobs to participate in the May 1st strike, “We are a workforce made up mostly of immigrants, women, African-Americans, and indigenous people. Without workers, who does Trump think will harvest the crops, craft the food, transport it to market, stock the shelves, cook in kitchens, and serve the meals?”
Mainstream unions will be harder to convince. As explained by Cora Lewis on Buzzfeed, this is because not only do these large institutions move slowly, they have contractual obligations to employers that could turn any non-negotiated actions into a major legal hassle.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Although it’s relatively easy to make the connection between racism and materialism, extending this critique to war-making and specifically, the war on terrorism, is going to be more difficult for people to accept, in part due to the way corporate media frames these things.
To quote from a recent essay by U.S. Green Party Vice-Presidential candidate, Ajamu Baraka, “After almost three decades of pro-war conditioning by both corporate parties and the corporate media coupled with cultural desensitization from almost two decades of unrelenting war, opposition to militarism and war is negligible among the general population.”
When Dr. King made his speech, the war in Vietnam was appearing on television screens every night, its brutality laid bare for all but the most heartless or deluded of people to see. There was also the draft, meaning that, technically, every young American man could be put on the front line of a fight to protect the legacy of French colonialism in east Asia.
The end of this ill-advised and immoral adventure led to almost 30 years without an overt war. By the time Reagan became president in 1980, this revulsion with the reality of modern warfare was likened to a medical condition by pro-war intellectuals; the United States was said to be suffering from “Vietnam Syndrome”.
The solution? Make sure that no one sees the reality of war, except when it implicates a rival or an enemy.
Images of Khan Sheikhoun, where the Syrian government has been blamed for a sarin gas attack that killed at least 72 people (before there’s been any kind of investigation) were quickly released to the press. At the same time, we have seen none of the carnage created by the ‘accidental’ U.S. airstrikes less than a week before in western Mosul, Iraq where as many as 300 people died.
It appears that Donald Trump has made the turn that may allow him to finish his term with an aggressive continuation of the Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama foreign policy in Syria and elsewhere without the benefit of an increasingly ideological but still somewhat competent State Department.
Even if they were only meant to send a message to Assad and his allies and in the unlikely event that there were few casualties when the Trump Administration unilaterally launched 59 cruise missiles at an airbase in Homs, Syria, on March 6th, the cost alone is over $93,000,000. This is money that could be better spent improving the lives of American citizens who are constantly told they can’t have universal health care or student loan debt relief because it’s too expensive.
Although the media are likely to report on the Worker’s Day marches and other actions, chasing the ratings that President Trump has so helpfully brought them, will they ignore the coalition that is forming to battle Dr. King’s giant triplets: systemic racism, rampant materialism and out of control militarism?