As his life careened toward its tragic end, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became more wide ranging in his critique of American society, making connections between the ongoing struggle for civil rights, poverty across racial divides and American imperialism in what was then called the Third World, especially Vietnam. These important connections have been absent from most mainstream celebrations of his life and work up to the present day.
His 1967 “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” speech, made at Riverside Church in New York a year to the day before his murder, was met with controversy, with most US newspapers and even the then U.S. President reacting to it with disapproval and demanding that the civil rights leader stay in his lane.
Dr. King risked his then growing platform by calling out the “giant triplets of racism, militarism and materialism” that still plague the world, saying, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society,” further, as Dr. King lamented, “young black men were being sent, “eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they have not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
Also mostly forgotten, Dr. King was an advocate for unions and fought for worker’s rights, another piece of his legacy that is absent from a mainstream hagiography that aims to separate him from more ‘radical’ contemporaries.
On MLK Day this past Monday, January 21st, Senator Bernie Sanders was one of the few on the national stage to refer to King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech in prepared remarks to the NAACP under an appropriately grey sky in South Carolina.
While the media only wanted to talk about The Vermont Senator’s calling the current president a racist, Sanders spoke eloquently about King’s understanding of what we might now refer to as an intersectional struggle for a better world, “What he (MLK) reminded us was of courage of conscience, that no matter what the odds we stand up and take on the power to fight for economic justice, to fight for social justice, to fight for racial justice and to fight for environmental justice.”
While the media has spent two years chasing the chimera of current President’s unproven ‘collusion’ with Russia, including a controversial Buzzfeed story that crowded out most other news last week, outlets like CNN have mostly ignored the increasingly urgent cries of scientists, Indigenous and environmental groups, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that attention needs to be focused on the climate crisis and the less talked about loss of biodiversity throughout the world, including the collapse of important, if undervalued, insect populations in recent years.
The climate crisis, which overlaps issues of inequality, migration and war, is in the main a product of years of neglect by governments and fossil fuel billionaires long after MLK was gone, but he would probably have understood that it was going to effect the poor both first and most. Even in the current U.S. context, African Americans are 3 times more likely to live in poverty than whites and have been the primary victims of climate related events in places like New Orleans and Puerto Rico.
The American corporate press seem to have been too busy clutching their pearls over President Trump’s Twitter feed to notice that the current administration has been leading a frenzied assault on the country’s protected lands, air and water under industry shills like Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, whose own petty corruptions rather than terrible policy choices were their ultimate undoing.
For the Trump administration, fossil fuel extraction, from fracking to mountaintop removal, is at the very top of the to do list regardless of the consequences.
A new report by Oil Change International (OCI) shows that the rate at which the U.S. is taking these resources out of the ground risks not only the health of those communities being opened to exploitation, but is making the country the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels, most of it for export rather than to meet domestic needs.
As explained by a co-author of the OCI report, Kelly Trout, whose insight is worth quoting at length, “Our findings present an urgent and existential emergency for lawmakers in the United States at all levels of government. The oil and gas industry is expanding further and faster in the United States than in any other country at precisely the time when we must begin rapidly decarbonizing to prevent runaway climate disaster. We’re at this crisis point because of failing political decisions to allow unfettered fracking, permit a massive buildout of pipelines, lift the crude export ban, and subsidize a climate-wrecking industry with billions of taxpayer dollars.”
One of the main reasons why a comprehensive Green New Deal (GND), including retraining for displaced workers and a federal job guarantee is an important policy road map is that workers in the industry will need new jobs (and training) to participate in a fossil fuel free economy.
Writing in The Intercept, Kate Aronoff made plain why this is important for something as ambitious (and necessary) as a Green New Deal, “Absent complementary, redistributive policies like those embedded in proposals for a Green New Deal, such a phase-out could place the burden of decarbonization on communities whose livelihoods revolve around it, from Texas to Appalachia.”
In a sense we’ve already seen on a small scale how dangerous a backlash from displaced workers can be with coal, which was slowly being phased out but was leaving those employed by the industry to look for less well paid work elsewhere. At least part of Trump’s appeal was his seeming sympathy for workers who felt left behind, even if his tax plan revealed this to all but the most obtuse for the charade it always was.
While its obviously a much smaller country, Germany, which still uses coal for 40% of its power, is in the process of phasing it out, working to create long term solutions for workers and impacted communities that could provide a model for other countries, including the United States.
Creating high speed rail networks or just bolstering the United States’ crumbling infrastructure could create jobs for many workers but such massive undertakings require an educational effort on a similar scale. Add to this the need to quickly advance renewable energy technology and a federal job guarantee seems less idealistic. The beauty of a GND is that it is aspirational, it fights the cynicism of the ‘how will you pay for it?” center and the increasingly nihilistic anger of the right by making a positive appeal to commonsense; people need good jobs but they also need access to healthy food, clean air and water.
It’s still possible to imagine a world where countries compete to offer solutions to global problems, starting with climate change, rather than to extract wealth from the earth, project power in poorer nations and build ever more sophisticated weapons systems to bully and threaten others.
Thankfully, new groups who instinctively understand the connections MLK pointed out more than half a century ago, and have a nuanced understanding of the overarching issues, have emerged from the Democratic Socialists of America and Justice Democrats, who have changed the conversation by working with transformative candidates like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, to activist groups like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion.
The latter, often shortened to XR, has planned a series of actions on Saturday, Jan. 26 across the United States and Canada. Influenced by earlier groups like Occupy, Extinction Rebellion is a non-hierarchical group which allows peaceful actions in its name as long as its principles are applied.
Dr. King was talking about many of the same things as these activists and progressive politicians more than a half a century ago and in the intervening time, cosmetic improvements aside, the United States (and other rich nations) are not much closer to the Beloved Community he sometimes spoke of, a place without discrimination or the threat of violence reserved for the poor and marginalized. By taking up positive political and environmental activism, many citizens, in the U.S. and around the world, are still working to make Dr. King’s Beloved Community a reality.