A smart young pianist comments on MLK

June 26, 2011

In News

I am a pianist currently enrolled in the doctoral program at the Juilliard School in New York City, though I dedicate a generous amount of my spare time to keeping myself informed of and involved in issues of politics and social justice. I have been one of the regular student contributors to The Juilliard Journal since my first year as a master’s student in 2008-2009, writing mostly promotional pieces for various events at the school. Occasionally I am allowed to write an opinion piece for the paper, including most recently an article on America’s role in the Israel-Palestine conflict which generated considerable backlash after it appeared in September 2010.

This past winter, I was granted a request to pen a piece on Martin Luther King, Jr. for the February issue of The Journal. I became interested in King as a figure after discovering his “Beyond Vietnam” speech and realizing that his mainstream legacy hardly captured the character of the outspoken dissident chronicled in his own FBI profile. Thus my article evaluates the discrepancy between the radical King who took aim at the dominant institutions of political and economic power and the anodyne King who is today celebrated by the establishment for his soft proclamations of “tolerance” and “charity.”

Just days before going to press, and despite my editor’s enthusiastic endorsement of the article, it was withheld from publication by the administration for reasons that remain ambiguous.


The Other King
By Ben Laude

In 1976, the United States Senate issued an extensive report on the illegal intelligence operations of official government agencies during the previous two decades. The report included a supplementary case study documenting the F.B.I.’s covert activities directed at a single individual: Martin Luther King Jr. The Bureau’s goal was simple: “to destroy Dr. King as the leader of the civil rights movement.”

The F.B.I. labeled the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was closely associated with King, a “black nationalist-hate group,” and, with the approval of then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, initiated an aggressive surveillance program in the early 1960s to “neutralize” and “discredit” the reverend from Atlanta. Bureau chief J. Edgar Hoover, while largely turning a blind eye to the racist violence of white hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, remained unusually dedicated to publicly exposing the nonviolent King as a communist and sexual degenerate. His phone calls were tapped, his hotel rooms bugged. He was blackmailed, threatened, and intimidated, and, he even received an anonymous letter from the F.B.I. encouraging him to commit suicide. According to William Sullivan, the F.B.I.’s frontman in the “war” against King, “No holds were barred. We have used similar techniques against Soviet agents. . . . This is a rough, tough business.”

While the F.B.I. ultimately failed to defame King, its activities did expose a crucial truth about the civil rights leader: He represented a real threat to the status quo establishment of the United States. This past month, King’s legacy was celebrated in events around the country, including here at Juilliard. These traditional Martin Luther King Day events, however genuine, tend to portray a more docile King, who represented abstract ideals like “nonviolence” and “community service” and whose quest for justice ended with legislative victories for racial equality. This was the King of my grade-school history textbooks, one hardly consistent with the subversive radical of the F.B.I.’s characterization.

But here I must agree with our nation’s political police: The King who sought to conquer “the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation” by way of “a radical transformation of values” did pose a serious threat to the established order. This is the King who saw the struggle for civil rights within a larger international struggle for human rights and social justice. It is this King whose message is more urgent today than ever before.

With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the de jure segregation laws which disenfranchised and discriminated against African Americans for decades were finally overturned. These landmark legislations were consequences of a movement long in the making, which, with the leadership and public savvy of King, shook the conscience of America through mass demonstrations of nonviolent civil disobedience. This legislation “was first written in the streets,” King said. It “was not a product of the charity of white America for a supine black America.”

With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, it would be easy to assume that the days of state- sponsored racial discrimination have been vanquished, and that racial animus has been all but erased from our national consciousness. Nearly 43 years after King’s death, however, the specter of Jim Crow lives on in our law and justice institutions. As Michelle Alexander writes in her book, The New Jim Crow, “If Martin Luther King Jr. were to return miraculously . . . he would be saddened to discover that the same issues on which he originally focused still produce stark patterns of racial inequality, segregation, and poverty. He would also be struck by the dramatically elevated significance of one particular institutional force in the perpetuation and deepening of those patterns: the criminal justice system.”

Alexander argues convincingly that through such seemingly legitimate campaigns as the War on Drugs, young African-American men have been disproportionately targeted and incarcerated in America’s ballooning prison system as a means of social control. Despite identical rates of drug usage and sale among racial groups, black men have been have been imprisoned on drug charges in some states at a rate up to 50 times greater than white men, and, upon release, are subject to legalized discrimination eerily similar to that of the Jim Crow era.

“Mass incarceration,” Alexander writes, “is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.”

King, who was outspoken about injustice in Pretoria and Johannesburg, would no doubt be appalled to learn that the United States in 2011 imprisons a higher percentage of its black population than did South Africa at the height of apartheid.

With nominal equality finally achieved in Congress in the mid-1960s, the leaders of the civil rights movement turned next to abolishing systems of economic inequality that threatened to preserve a racial caste system in America. Poverty became “the next and most profound stage of the battle for civil rights,” in the words of King, who insisted that equality must not exist merely “as a right and a theory, but . . . as a fact and a result.”

Gains thus far were “basically in the social and political areas” and “obtained at bargain prices,” according to King. “The problems we now face—providing jobs, better housing and better education for the poor throughout the country will require money for their solution, a fact that makes those solutions all the more difficult,” King said, adding that true gain would demand “radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.”

Understanding that real equality could not be achieved without fundamental economic change, King spoke late in his life about the “evils of capitalism” and demanded “a radical redistribution of economic and political power,” words which today would have him front-and-center on Glenn Beck’s chalkboard.

To reorient the movement from race-consciousness to class-consciousness, in 1967 King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference spearheaded the Poor People’s Campaign, the goal of which was to push Congress to enact an Economic Bill of Rights. Towards the end of his life, King was organizing thousand of the nation’s disadvantaged from across the racial spectrum to encamp Washington in order to wage acts of nonviolent disobedience and disruption. At the time of his assassination, King was in Memphis to lend his support to a sanitation workers’ strike, whose participants memorably adorned the slogan “I Am A Man” around their necks during marches.

On April 4, 1967—a year to the day before he was gunned down in Memphis—King delivered his Beyond Vietnam speech to a packed house at Riverside Church in New York, articulating his principled opposition to the war. Far from an abstract pacifism, King’s antiwar stance was firmly rooted in a critique of the imperial ideology of American power, and in the damning affiliation between war abroad and poverty at home. Our government, he proclaimed, is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

“Somehow this madness must cease,” he continued. “We must stop now.” King spoke in solidarity with “the suffering poor of Vietnam . . . whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted,” as well as with “the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam.”

As King turned against the war and advocated for radical structural change, leaders turned against him. “When it mattered most,” MLK biographer Harvard Sitkoff writes, “President Johnson turned his back on King.” Indeed, the president paid King the ultimate insult when he refused to attend the fallen civil rights leader’s funeral.

Ironically, the abject dismissal of King by past leaders has evolved into a misinformed reverence by today’s leaders, as was exhibited recently by Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon general counsel, who said that if King were alive today, he would support the war in Afghanistan. Considering that 48 million (one in six) Americans currently live in poverty according to the most recent Census Bureau figures, while the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has surpassed $1 trillion, Johnson might be wise to heed King’s warning that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Given the ongoing economic malaise affecting the world and the militarism that contributes to its perpetuation, King’s mostly ignored message is as relevant today as ever. Rather than performing tepid acts of charity and making soft proclamations of nonviolence, Americans truly devoted to King’s undistilled legacy might better rally around his battle cry for nonviolent direct action against the institutions of injustice. A failure to engage in active resistance of this kind would be a poor service to the memory of the real King—and could ultimately result in the autopsy of our planet reading “spiritual death.”