Speech by Nyree Hall at San Francisco PSL Forum, Jan. 16, 2015
Today we are able to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s taught in K-12 to students, we get to stay home from work and school, and his “I Have a Dream” speech is used as the slogan of Civil Rights. We celebrate him nationally today, but the United States seems to have forgotten how they actually felt about him.
When Martin Luther King was alive and a leader in the Civil Rights struggle, fighting for Black workers rights, opposing the Vietnam war in 1967, preparing for the Poor People’s March on Washington, he was viciously hounded by the FBI, he was jailed, red-baited, and his family’s home was bombed by the Klu Klux Klan. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4th, 1968. Right after his death, legislation and a petition with 3 million signatures in support of a national holiday were presented to Congress and what did Congress do? Absolutely nothing. This hero that the United States paints as the perfect Black activist, couldn’t even get a holiday until 15 years after his death
In his famous pamphlet, “State and Revolution,” Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, wrote these opening words: “During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter.” These words can well be applied to the way the ruling class, its politicians and the corporate media treated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was alive, and how they treat him today, when they try to turn him into a “harmless icon,” with the object of duping the masses of people who are struggling for justice and a better life.
Today, the United States outwardly pretends to appreciate Martin Luther King Jr. but this is done to change his image to a more “acceptable” one. Like many Black activists, he’s reduced to a slogan, “I Have a Dream,” as if that’s all he did while he was alive–dream. As activists, we’re told to be more like him, but people forget what that means. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered for his actions and beliefs, not just because he had dreams of racial and economic equality. One area of life that Martin Luther King Jr. was a fighter of was poverty in the United States. He frequently spoke about the Black community having an unemployment rate double that of white people.
Although as a Black man the conditions of the Black community were important to him, he also included the struggles of working class white people who also lived in poverty. MLK was not just for welfare type programs that helped people; he wanted systemic change that prevented poverty from happening in the first place. He made it known that the minimum wage needed to be increased and more jobs were needed especially in places such as classrooms where teachers work hard because schools are understaffed. He made it known that to not pass legislation to help the poor would show that only the rich are deserving of attention and that violence would be the only way for poor people to get the attention they needed from the government.
Another area Martin Luther King Jr. was passionate about was ending the Vietnam War. He was adamant about ending the war and was especially critical of other Christians who didn’t speak against it. Many thought that he was stepping outside of his area as a Civil Rights activist by speaking against the Vietnam War. However, as an activist preaching non-violence as a way to accomplish goals for the Black community, Martin Luther King Jr. realized that he couldn’t tell his community not to be violent to solve problems if the United States was doing just that in Vietnam. He felt that if he could talk about non-violence in the Black community, he should also speak about ending the violent participation in the Vietnam War.
Martin Luther King Jr. was in opposition to the war because he believed it took away resources from the poor at home. Today, the United States cuts so many programs that benefit poor working class children and adults yet we spend so much money overseas fighting in wars when that money could be spent in our country benefiting the people. Martin Luther King Jr. saw this in his time as well and understood that poor people in the United States would never get the help they needed as long as the United States was funding the Vietnam War.
Additionally, Martin Luther King Jr. thought the United States was a hypocrite for sending Black and white men to fight for democracy in another country when we were still working on democracy in the United States. Segregation dictated that Black and white men couldn’t even sit together yet they were supposed to go to Vietnam and die together to bring a “better way of life” to Vietnamese people. Martin Luther King Jr. thought it was his job as a Christian and activist to bring these problems to light.
Reading his speeches on Vietnam also showed that Martin Luther King Jr. believed the United States was acting undemocratic by being in the war in the first place. In the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. talks briefly about the history of Vietnam. He mentions how Vietnam proclaimed their independence after being occupied by Japan and France.
In reestablishing themselves, they even quoted the Declaration of Independence in their document of freedom but instead of giving the Vietnamese people the power of self-determination, the United States decided to support France in recolonizing them because the United States was against communism. This was obviously a very undemocratic decision. Another idea that is so relevant to our current times is organizing ourselves to fight for our rights.
Something important Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned in his “Address to the Hungry Club” speech was the idea of waiting. He pointed out how many people will say that we need to wait for time to fix our problems. King had a personal experience with this when he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama. Eight white Alabama clergy sent a letter to King criticizing him as an “outsider,” saying that the struggle should be in the courts and not in the streets, and advising the movement to go slow.
King responded with his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It said in part: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, what one of our distinguished jurists said, ‘Justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”
This was in 1963 and it has so much relevance today. So many people criticize those of us who are fighting for equality and systemic changes telling us that we need to be patient. We need to be quiet. We need to let the government do all the work. However, King pointed out in the “Address to the Hungry Club” speech that your time can either be used constructively or destructively and that the conservative right wing in our country is hard at work, sometimes a little harder than the liberals who claim to be on our side.
To be silent and not create a plan of action in the face of injustice is just as harmful. Progress requires the persistent hard work of dedicated individuals. King also made sure to speak to those disillusioned about how good we have life at the moment. Although Black people in 1965 had many advances in their treatment, they did not have the total equality and resources they needed. There was a long way to go and it would take hard work and dedicated individuals.
The same is true in the United States today. In 2015, we have so many more advances than we had in 1965, but look at the state of our lives. Our education system needs a lot of improvement, Black people are murdered by the police every 48 hours, and the unemployment rate for poor, especially poor Black people, is still horrible. These are not problems that are going to fix themselves. We didn’t get the Civil Rights Act by waiting and today, we will not get the systemic changes we want by waiting either.
From the beginning of his political life in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 at only 26 years old, Dr. King was an extraordinarily courageous and determined leader. It is remarkable what he accomplished in just over 12 years, until he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968. He only lived to be 39, as did Malcolm X, who was murdered in 1965.
When the Montgomery bus boycott began, Black people throughout the South and beyond lived under a state of racist terror. Attempting to register to vote or enter a segregated hotel, restaurant or restroom – and they were all segregated – could very well mean being lynched or bombed. The cops, sheriffs, courts and Ku Klux Klan worked hand-in-hand to maintain this system, as they had since the end of Reconstruction nearly 80 years earlier.
The Montgomery boycott lasted 385 days before a court declared segregated buses in the city unconstitutional. During it, King along with many others was arrested and his home was bombed. After Montgomery, the Klan and other white supremacists intensified their resistance and reign of terror against the movement and in defense of Jim Crow segregation.
Between 1955 and 1965, hundreds of people were killed, thousands beaten and bombed and tens of thousands jailed. The struggle was a hard and dangerous one, and didn’t always end in victory. King was among the many who were jailed, beaten and threatened with death on numerous occasions. He was arrested 29 times. And it was not only the Klan and local and state governments, but also the federal government that was persecuting him and the movement as a whole.
In the last years of his life, Dr. King – against the advice of most of his advisers and liberals – made increasingly radical critiques of economic inequality and militarism. In August 1967, he gave his last major speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Council, entitled, “Where Do We Go from Here.” While stating that he was not a communist, King said:
“I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about ‘Where do we go from here,’ that we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?”‘You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?’ These are questions that must be asked.”
This is who the real Martin Luther King Jr. was. He was so much more than I Have a Dream. This is why he was targeted and murdered. Martin Luther King Jr. was persecuted for his radical beliefs of having a country that provided equally for its people. And this is why, like him, we must continue to stand up, speak out, and, fight for the country we all deserve.