We’re all used to going through the motions of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. After facing massive student pressure from the Black Action Movement over a decade ago, the University decided to take the day off and hold a symposium honoring the civil rights leader, giving us an opportunity to celebrate hard-earned civil rights by playing beer pong a third night in a row. King has become an easy-to-swallow symbol for universally accepted and vaguely worded concepts like freedom and diversity. He’s the revolutionary everyone can agree on: charismatic, God-fearing and, most importantly, shot down in his prime. What many fail to realize is that King’s radicalism stretched far beyond his “I Have a Dream” speech. His stances against the Vietnam War and in favor of the labor movement are either forgotten or skimmed over, diminishing his true radicalism.

Elliott Mallen

A look at who has been honoring King makes it easy to see to what degree he has become an empty symbol of activism. General Motors, a company with a history of racist hiring practices in Detroit, has donated $10 million to help build a memorial to King in Washington. Bill Swanson, chief executive officer and chairman of the renowned arms manufacturer Raytheon, has stated that the outspoken pacifist has helped his corporation, claiming that “we are a more inclusive society and a more inclusive company because of Dr. King’s vision.”

King has also been posthumously appointed spokesman of companies hoping to benefit from an association with such a revered figure. Alcatel, a firm dealing with voice and data networks, recently released a digitally altered commercial depicting King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of an empty Mall while a voiceover soothingly asserts that “Before you can inspire, before you can touch, you must first connect. And the company that connects more of the world is Alcatel, a leader in communication networks.” Alcatel spokesman Brad Burns assures us that “It’s not like we’re selling a product, we’re simply associating our brand with it.” Apple Computers took a more subtle approach by releasing black-and-white print ads featuring pictures of King with the company’s logo and the words “Think Different” inconspicuously located in the corner. It’s the smoothest corporatization of a revolutionary figure ever — a seamless, wordless transition from substance to style.

Slick advertisements and empty gestures fail to portray the depth of King’s objectives. His efforts on civil rights are his most widely acknowledged achievements because today they are universally accepted. However, King the antiwar activist and workers’ rights proponent are largely ignored due to the still-present controversy over these topics. Everyone wants to live in an environment where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” but not everyone shares identical feelings on labor rights or the Vietnam War.

In 1967, King gave a speech entitled Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence in which he declared that the Vietnam War was “an enemy of the poor.” King saw the war as a manifestation of racial and economic inequality in the United States, saying that “America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” He decried the “cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools” and pointed out the hypocrisy of a situation in which “we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit.” For King, resisting the Vietnam War was an integral part of promoting true equality. Time magazine called this “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,” which is certainly a departure from the fawning one hears today from mainstream news sources.

King, spent the later years of his life fighting for workers rights and economic equality. According to him, gaining civil rights was the easy part on the struggle for equality, as “There are no expenses involved, no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities.” Substantial changes requires “the outlay of billions for decent housing and equal education,” a fact many are reluctant to acknowledge.

In 1968, King announced the Poor People’s Campaign, which was to culminate in another march on the nation’s capital, demanding a $12 billion Economic Bill of Rights that would ensure employment for the able, income for the disabled and a final end to housing discrimination. King was shot in Memphis, Tenn. while visiting in support of striking sanitation workers, who marched with placards proclaiming “I am a man” under the shadow of National Guard tanks and bayonets.

Had King not been assassinated on that hotel balcony in 1968, he surely would have become a leading voice in the labor movement. Perhaps the reason people have been so reluctant to embrace the anti-war, pro-labor King is that he tackled issues that plague our country to this day. We are fighting a war with an army in which minorities are disproportionately doing the killing and dying. Despite King’s best efforts, the poor are still overwhelmingly black. We would all like to think that King’s dream has been fulfilled and that now all that’s left to do is build monuments, hold symposia and run King-invoking advertisements commemorating a troubling yet closed chapter in American history. The striking parallels between King’s America and our own make this far from appropriate.

 

Mallen can be reached at emmallen@umich.edu.

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