A hater with a gun, a sniper who shot from a hiding place, someone who could not possibly have been stopped by a hundred dead-eyed lovers with guns, slaughtered Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Decades later, after a sometimes ugly debate, King’s birthday would come to be celebrated as a national holiday. MLK has been turned into a caricature, an unshakably non-violent man who led his people out of the darkness of a violent racist past and into the light of our present day of color-blind freedom and justice for all.
King was killed one year, to the day, after laying out his arguments about the evil of the war America was then waging in Vietnam. The speech was called “Why I am Opposed to the War In Vietnam”, you can hear the entire address here. He denounced the war as an “unjust, evil and futile war.” He explained why he was no longer able to remain silent as the war raged. He went on to describe the symbiotic relationship between racism, poverty and militarism. He was unsparing in his analysis. To my mind, there is no refuting what he had to say.
The money to solve the problems of inequality in America was being wasted in a senseless, evil war waged against the poor people of Vietnam, purely for the profits of a few. The same can be said for every American war since. Trillions to kill poor people abroad, on dubious rationales, hardly a penny to prevent the eternal hopelessness of our own millions who are born into, and die in, poverty. King pointed out that we spent $500,000 for each enemy soldier killed in Vietnam and $53 for each American living in poverty– much of the $53 going for the salaries of those not in poverty.
Immediately after giving the speech, which his advisors all urged him not to give, King went from beloved icon of Civil Rights to pariah. He was immediately condemned in virtually every publication in America. A few years earlier he would have been universally denounced as a Commie for his brutal analysis of the military-industrial-poverty-racism complex. He was called a Commie and worse. King met with the hostility those who style themselves patriotic always express toward those who dissent against any American military campaign.
After the speech, King was largely alone, increasingly focused on the larger problem: social justice for every American living in poverty. There is no cure for racism until poverty is eradicated. Neither goal is attainable until America stops spending billions on war. Talk about speaking truth to power. King laid out the exact swindle those behind our Great American War Machine are constantly pulling. The war in Vietnam, King said, was the enemy of the poor, black and white poor together, burning the huts of poor villagers in Southeast Asia, while segregation and inequality persisted at home.
I add: You’re poor? Join the army, get some respect. We will send you to kill other poor people, who will hate you — and not without reason. Don’t expect, like black vets returning from World War Two did, the respect of your fellow citizens, or even the rights of your fellow citizens. Know your place, wait your turn, give things a century or two.
I now believe, fifty years today after his assassination, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. must be the angriest angel in heaven.