The King That Was and the King That Wasn’t: Martin Luther King Jr. vs. capitalism, militarism and racism – then and now (Part 2 of 3)

Preceded by The King That Was and the King That Wasn’t: Martin Luther King Jr. vs. capitalism, militarism and racism – then and now (Part 1 of 3)

 MLK JR., Vietnam, Anti war, anti capitalism, imperialism, 1968   When the extraordinary life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is narrated, events occurring in the years 1966-1968 are usually given far less detail than the other events that took place in his previous years. This is rather a shame, for it was in these years that his consciousness fully arose to the reality of racism on an international scale and its necessity for the growth of capitalism. The words he used during this period to express the causes he espoused resonate more relevantly now than do any other words he spoke during his thirty-nine years of life. It is also quite possible that from these statements can be derived what his opinions would likely be regarding the most pressing issues of our time were he still alive today. This assertion will undoubtedly draw criticism from some, but keep in mind the particular issues he was speaking about at the end of his life not only still exist, but have gotten arguably worse.

For example, there’s his stern criticism of the enormous wealth gap existing between the wealthiest few percent of income-holders and the rest of the nation. It wasn’t just the disparities between rich and poor he took issue with. He critically rebuked the wealth-monopolizing being done by those who sat at the highest positions of power at the expense of both the poor and “middle class” citizens, who overwhelmingly compose the majority of the country’s population. The current conditions pertaining to this particular issue, an issue that was immensely important to Martin Luther King’s national outlook, are worse now than ever before. Just as King had predicted, the U.S. electoral landscape shifted sharply right-ward following the elections of 1968. [1] President Lyndon B. Johnson’s national “War on Poverty” was undermined by his deadly escalation of the war in Vietnam, and with it so was any further commitment to rectifying economic inequality. At the time when the turbulence of the 1960’s had reached its highest peak, a conservative backlash against progressive movements brewed among the country’s Old Guard. A growing number of African Americans decided it was time to advocate a more militant approach in demanding what should have been theirs in the first place; more women began to question the path of subservience to men and family that had been laid out before them, deciding they should have the right to take their destinies in their own hands; students on campuses in cities across the country stood in fierce opposition to the unjust war in Vietnam by burning their draft cards. Conservative politicians saw an opportunity worth seizing: politically reawakening the people they called “the silent majority” in hopes of creating an unbeatable coalition of white conservative suburbanites. Although this strategy was privately referred to as the “Southern strategy”, it was in fact a strategy that played out on the national level, devised by the Republican party as a way of winning over disaffected Southern Democrats as well as Northern Democrats disenchanted by the former party of Roosevelt. GOP strategists saw it feasible that if they could gather a large majority of whites into their coalition, there would be no need to reach out to minority voters or compete for their votes. This shift to the Right worked like a charm, and this new coalition would come to carry the GOP from victory to victory for generations to come. (*) However, they did face one dilemma, and that was the difficulty of appealing to white racism without overtly stating the intention to do so. [2]   A sure way to do this, they discovered, would be demonizing the millions of people living in poverty by characterizing them with coded racial imagery. Night and day, television viewers and newspaper readers across the country were bombarded with an unprecedented amount of negative images portraying African Americans dwelling in the inner-cities as violent, lazy, criminal drug-addicts wanting “government handouts” and cheating the system by an intentional reliance on “government welfare.” The word “welfare”, once a word used in a positive context representing charity and the general well-being of a people, would never be uttered again in the political arena without the intended purpose of invoking racial stereotypes, biases and/or prejudices. Excluded from inclusion in this national conversation were the centuries of seemingly endless suffering made possible through use of legal discrimination, chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, unequal public housing and unequal employment opportunities. Instead, a narrative was formed to justify the terrible conditions African Americans found themselves in, placing blame directly on the perceived moral failures and inferior characteristics that white people had of Black people in general. Though this representation of Black life was inaccurate, it served as yet another reason to justify and rationalize ill-treatment and abandonment of impoverished people. [3] And although this strategy may have been implemented by the latest incarnation of the corporate Republican Party, the corporate Democratic Party did next to nothing to challenge it. (**) [4] By successfully equating poverty with Blackness, the stage was set for the passage of even more legislation favoring the elite wealthy class. New tax codes, large corporate subsidizing and deregulation of Wall Street businesses saw the most unequal wealth distribution occur since the Stock Market Crash of 1929 which was followed by the Great Depression. In the timespan of 1980-2005 alone, 80% of all generated income went exclusively into the hands of just 1% of the whole United States population. [5] As of 2010, this same 1% had a monopoly on 24% of the nation’s vast amount of wealth. [6] If these statistics seem frighteningly similar to a Royal monarchy as opposed to a free democracy, rest assured there is plenty of dough to spread around… to the next 2 percent that is. Once the top 3% of income ‘earners’ are taken into account, they collectively control 40% of the nation’s wealth. As for the bottom 50%, their pockets aren’t quite sharing in the magnitude of this fortune as, all together, they control just 2.5% of the wealth generated in the richest country the world has ever known. [6] At this very moment, despite living with an economy which dwarfs all economies in the rest of the world, the United States’ has a greater wealth disparity between rich and poor than Latin American countries of Uruguay, Argentina and Ecuador. [7] Given the extremity of the inequality present in this economy and the continuing trend it’s on, it should come as no surprise that there exists today in the United States 50 million people unable to afford health insurance (^) as well as a record 47 million people who reside below the national poverty level. [8] Quite predictably, this being the U.S. and all, these numbers become even more devastating when broken down by race.  Both African American and Hispanic populations have a poverty rate which exceeds 26% and, as of 2009, 52% of all nonwhite persons living in the States could not even afford to buy health insurance. [9] And while segregation may have been legally outlawed since the eradication of Jim Crow, the economic reality on the ground seems to suggest otherwise. As discussed in Part 1 (^^), residential segregation has changed only marginally at best, and it’s had a huge impact on the way school districts are drawn. 55 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled segregation in education unconstitutional, school districts with a majority-minority population of students receive on average $1,000 less per student than school districts with a majority-white student population. [10] The recent economic recession has also had a disproportionately negative impact on households in communities of color. In 2010, nearly two years into the ‘great recession’ (*^), the median net worth of African American households stood at $5,677, for Hispanics: $6,325, and for whites: $113,149. [11] These economic realities have been conditioned by the continual growth of capitalism and are the antithesis of what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he spoke about a more “fair distribution of [economic] and political power.”

King was regularly arrested and harassed by police
King was regularly arrested and harassed by police

42521b5c9ef1493cba705370b92e1421Given the fact that he left no room for doubt where he stood morally in regards to the Vietnam War and all other forms of imperialistic violence, it can be reasonably presumed that he would have been equally strident in his opposition to the United States’ current involvement in all Middle Eastern affairs, including the War on Afghanistan, occupation of Iraq and NATO-led invasion of Libya. (^*) He had been critical of the role the CIA played in escalating the tensions between North and South Vietnam, which must have been heightened by the constant surveillance of his own life by the FBI. If anything, U.S. foreign policy has only changed for the worse since King’s assassination. Taking into account King’s stern rebuke of the massive amounts of currency flowing into the military industrial complex’s budget back in 1968, one can only imagine how morally outraged he would be at the fact that the so-called “defense” budget has more than quadrupled since then and reached an excess of up to $700 billion annually, not even including many of the hidden costs. [12] In fact, the U.S. now spends more on its military budget than nearly every other nation in the world combined. [13] The “War on Terror”, as it was coined by former President George W. Bush, was in actuality a war against the Arabs and Muslim people of the world who found themselves the latest in a long line of scapegoats used as justification for U.S. invasions of Islamic countries in the Mid-East. (#) If anything, these trillion dollar wars have only made America significantly less safe than it was at the time the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in New York occurred. These gruesome acts of murder, committed by suicidal plane-hijackers from the Mid-East as part of a plot orchestrated by a former member of the CIA-backed mujahedeen, Osama bin Laden, were shamelessly used by the Bush Administration and the CIA as justification for imperialistic intervention in nearly every nation in the region. The expose’ of the extremely sick and sadistic torture methods used on Iraqi prisoners in Abu-Ghraib prison, the vast majority of who were never even charged with committing a crime, along with the kidnapping of Afghani and Iraqi citizens from their lands and their subsequent transferal to the Guantanamo Bay torture chamber, had the effect of providing Al-Qaeda with just the images they needed to recruit an unprecedented amount of civilians to join what they interpreted as their jihadist cause. (+) [14] All of this occurred at a time when on the U.S. domestic front schools and infrastructure were crumbling and the national unemployment rate was steadily rising. To top it all off, over $1 trillion in tax cuts were handed out to wealthiest few percent of the nation’s citizens and billions of tax dollars were spent subsidizing big businesses and gigantic oil companies. [15] The parallels between the problems we faced in the 21st century and the problems King left behind when his life was taken from him are strikingly similar, bordering on identical. Were he still alive, he could just as easily stand before us today and utter these words as he did when standing before an audience in 1968: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” [16]

Brother Cornel West has worked to keep the essence of Dr. King's legacy alive.
Brother Cornel West has worked to keep the essence of Dr. King’s legacy alive.

In the wake of both the 2008 and 2012 election and reelection of the nation’s first Black President, Barack Obama, it has been suggested that the election of an African American President was the embodiment of Martin Luther King’s dream or, as Rev. Jesse Jackson put it, “the last lap of this unfinished race.” [17] Noted philosopher and prominent scholar of African American studies, Dr. Cornel West has a different view. He put the historic moment in perspective when, in 2011, he explained, “Our beloved President is A fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, not THE fulfillment.” [18] In other words, King undoubtedly would have felt a great sense of pride and joy for Obama and his beloved nation for being able to accomplish what seemed impossible, the election of an African American to the highest office in the land despite America’s inherent legacy of white supremacist values. He may have even supported some of President Obama’s policy initiatives as well (++), but that doesn’t mean he would have been passive or simply bit his tongue when it came to issues of moral importance, just as he didn’t back down in response to policies carried out by President Lyndon Johnson. In 1964, King had a large amount of respect for President Johnson and felt he had been instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65, as indeed he was. In the end, however, neither his feelings of loyalty to the President or the love he had for his country were enough to convince him that he should remain silent in the face of the unjust atrocities being carried out on the Vietnamese people. Similarly, Dr. Cornel West has expressed pride and tempered support for President Obama’s election and what it symbolizes for the nation as a whole [19] while simultaneously criticizing his position as the current face of imperial and capitalist power. (+*) For this, he too has seen himself shunned by many former friends and supporters of his in the media and political establishment. [20] Regardless of whether or not one feels Dr. West’s opinions are authentic or justified, as his detractors claim they are not, it is hard to imagine Dr. King expressing significantly different sentiments were he still here to voice his opposition to injustice as an elderly man of 84 years.

Noted Sources and Citations:

  1. Garrow, David J. (1986). Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Page 618.
  2. Full quote of former President Richard Nixon: “The whole problem is the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while appearing not to.” Retrieved from
  3. Mendelberg, Tali. (2001). The Race Card: campaign strategy, implicit messages, and the norm of racial equality. Pages 101-107. ; Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of ‘colorblindness’. Pages 44-54.
  4. Alexander, page 55-56.
  5.  Timothy, Noah. (2010, Sept. 3). The United States of Inequality. Slate.
  6. Reich, Robert. (2010, July 7). We’re in a Recession because the Rich are Raking in an Absurd Portion of the Wealth. Alter Net. Retrieved from
  8. Weise, Karen. (2012, Sept. 12). Record U.S. Poverty Rate Holds as Inequality Grows. Bloomberg Business Week. Also see reference 9.
  9. United States Census Bureau Report. (2011, Sept. 13). Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010. Retrieved from
  10. Black, Derek W. The Uncertain Future of School Desegregation and the Importance of Goodwill, Good Sense, and a Misguided Decision. Catholic University Law Review. Vol. 57, pages 947-989. Retrieved from
  11. Pew Research Center. (2011, July 26). “Twenty-to-One: wealth gaps rise to record between whites, Blacks and Hispanics”. PRC Social & Demographic Trends Study. Retrieved from
  12. Bandow, Doug. (2010, Jan. 7). Overspent and Overextended. Retrieved
  13. Rugy, Veronique de. (2011, Dec. 9). World’s Top Military Spenders: U.S. Spends More Than Next 14 Countries Combined. Mercatus Center/ George Mason University Study. Retrieved from
  14. Amnesty International. Quotes on Guantanamo and Torture.
  15. Thoma, Mark. (2012, Dec. 5). The Bush era Tax Cuts Didn’t Create the Wealth They Were Supposed to. The Fiscal Times. ; McKibben, Bill. (2012, Apr. 5). Why We Should End Handouts to Oil and Gas Companies. Mother Jones.
  16. Quote retrieved from
  17. Full quote of Rev. Jesse Jackson: “President Obama represents the last lap of the unfinished race.” Haygood, Wil. (2013, Jan. 15). Inauguration Will Cement Ties Between Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. The Washington Post. Retrieved from
  19.  Quote of Dr. Cornel West on the election of Barack Obama as President: “I hope he is a progressive Lincoln, I aspire to be Frederick Douglass to put pressure on him.” Democracy Now. (2008, Nov. 19). Retrieved from
  20. (2011, Aug. 11). Shots Fired! Steve Harvey Calls Dr. Cornel West, Tavis Smiley “Uncle Toms”. VIBE Magazine. Retrieved from

Other Notes:

*If the two most recent election-cycles are anything to go by (not including ‘mid-term’ elections), this strategy may in fact backfire in the long run. While the GOP has won election after election using the “Southern Strategy”, changing racial and ethnic demographics demonstrate that winning a large majority of white voters isn’t going to be enough to compete in the future. Senator and then President Obama won the presidency in 2008 and 2012 without receiving a majority of whites’ votes. It is true that neither did President Bill Clinton when he won, but he was in a three-man race both times, running against both a Republican and an Independent candidate.

** In fact, President Bill Clinton, the so-called ‘first Black president’, lent these stereotypes credibility in the political arena by making one of his central campaign themes the “reform of the welfare system” for “people who want to work.” Whether intentional or not, this further equates poverty with laziness.

^ I am aware that these numbers are subject to change with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” as the bill’s opponents call it. This law will undoubtedly be of some service to a lot of people who cannot afford health insurance, but it’s far from being “universal health care” that idealists hope for. It still leaves the main problem in tact: people’s health care being controlled by private insurance companies whose primary purpose is greater profit. Also, considering how when the bill was passed in 2010 there were 50 million uninsured persons in the United States, the law will still leave 20 million people without coverage because, by the government’s own estimates, the law covers an additional 30 million.

^^ See the 4th and 6th paragraphs in part 1 of this article.

*^ Technically the recession began in December of 2007 and officially ended in July of 2009, but its effects were hardly at an end by then its effects are in fact still being felt.

^* Each and every one of these conflicts has been encouraged, aided by, and in some cases orchestrated by the notoriously corrupt CIA, ever diligent in its role to protect the interests of and expand the reach of the military industrial complex. For more, see the Bay of Pigs incident during President John F. Kennedy’s term, the Iran-contra scandal and the training of the mujaheddin for an attack on the Soviets.

# for a timeline of U.S. imperialistic intervention in the Middle East up to 2003, see

+ The meaning of jihad in Islam has been greatly distorted by the Western media. In the Quran, jihad is mainly an internal struggle to live up to the morality of Allah, the supreme being. Extremist factions of Islam, such as that advocated by Osama bin Laden, seemed to have taken this to mean Holy War against those who are nonbelievers, but that is in no way a representation of the views held by most of the Islamic faith.

++ This is only theoretical but, knowing which policies he advocated in his lifetime, he might have supported some of the provisions included in the 2009 Recovery Act that provided much-needed assistance to poor and middle-class families as well as the expansion of Medicaid for many who could not afford health insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act. This in particular is PURELY speculative and should not be taken as an assertion because we have no way of knowing what he would have felt about different legislative actions.

+* By this I am referring to the office of the presidency of the United States in general which exists for the purpose of promoting U.S. capitalist and imperialist expansion, regardless of who holds the office. That’s not to say that some Presidents aren’t worse violators of human rights than others. I am merely pointing out the fact the each President takes an oath in effect swearing the preservation of the Empire. Also, in making note of Dr. Cornel West, I intentionally failed to make mention of his speaking-partner as of late, Tavis Smiley. I believe West has been mostly consistent in his opposition to imperialism and capitalism, even offering his endorsement to then-candidate Obama In 2008 only after warning that he would not stop his criticism of U.S. policy if he should win the office. He said that great Presidents are only made great by the pressure put on them by social movements and their leaders and gave as examples President Lincoln being pressured by Frederick Douglass and the Abolitionists, FDR by the NAACP and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Kennedy and Johnson by MLK Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

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