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Political activist Dr. Tony Monteiro is a Distinguished Lecturer in African-American Studies at Temple University. His writings will include two forthcoming books—one on analytical Marxism, and another on W.E.B. DuBois’s contributions toward a philosophy of human science.
If we want to know who Martin Luther King really was, [we must consider] the speech that sums up his life, and is therefore his legacy to us and our children and grandchildren, great grandchildren and generations to come. It is the speech he delivered a year before he was assassinated, in New York: “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” subtitled, “A Time to Break Silence,” where he says to his critics: I will not allow you to butcher my conscience. How can I be for non-violence here in America and not be for non-violence in Vietnam or anywhere else where imperialism is waging wars against peoples of color?
The second thing that he said in that speech is that he did not come to that pulpit in Riverside Church to speak to or criticize North Vietnam or the Vietcong. He wanted to speak to, as he put it, “my own government—the major purveyor of violence in the world.”
And then he went on to ask the question that still resonates, and that we must ask—as difficult it might be in 2012 to all sides running for president of the United States. The question of Martin Luther King: Who made America the policeman of the whole world? Your hands are dripping with the blood of Africans! Rape? You invented rape as an instrument of war and terror against the captured Africans. Democracy? As Frederick Douglass said: “What to the slave is your Fourth of July? You hypocrites!”
So King put his moral case before the world. The world heard King, [but] America looked at King with skepticism: You’ve gone too far—Negro, boy, “nigger.” You’ve gone too far! Who are you to criticize this president who has done more for African Americans since any president since Lincoln?
Now, we can get into a whole lot of discussions about this! Lincoln? The Emancipation Proclamation [was] signed as a part of a war policy because white working-class Irish, German, and English no longer wanted to fight, as they said, “a rich man’s war” to “free niggers.” And hence, if the North won the war, it was not because of Lincoln but [because of the actions of] 200,000 Africans—men and women. Lincoln did not free the slaves; the slaves freed themselves.
And [Lyndon B.] Johnson was not the author of civil rights. The text of the civil rights legislation was written in the streets of Montgomery, Ala., the bus boycott, the children’s marches in Birmingham. That’s the text of the civil rights legislation! It is in the lives of African Americans! But they asked Martin Luther King: How dare you criticize this president?
But what were the civil rights “leaders” and The New York Times editorial page saying? The white “liberals,” that is? They were saying that political expediency—the “lesser of two evils,” “we’ve got to re-elect this man”—means more than moral consistency.
Let’s be real. When King attacked the war in Vietnam, he didn’t just attack that policy. Remember, he talked about a movement beyond civil rights that would attack war, racism, and economic exploitation. For him it was both a moral crusade and a movement to save the country—and ultimately to save the world from American imperialism. We cannot underestimate this.
King would go on to write a book, “Where Do We Go from Here: “Chaos or Community?” … America, he said, had become consumed in consumerism, individualism, and rank materialism. Has anything changed? It’s just gotten worse—a culture that prioritized and put a premium upon things, and not human beings. And so, the “beloved community” would be a moral reconfiguration of human society and human relationships. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere! There is a fierce urgency of “now we must act!”
These are the foundations of King’s liberation theology. King was a Christian—a philosopher and a theologian. Somebody asked about systematic theology; that’s what he did his PhD. dissertation on, focusing upon the German theologian Paul Tillich. But he was also deeply influenced by a man of his own father’s generation—Howard Thurman. When King goes to Boston University [where he earned his doctorate], Howard Thurman is the dean of the chapel.
Howard Thurman was raised by a grandmother who, as a teenager, lived under slavery. The end of slavery came when she was well into her teen years. He was raised in Florida; he would go on to become a theologian, and I want to emphasize this, a mystical Christian—which is to say, he sought not only to understand the relationship of man to man, but man to nature and man to the cosmos. Holistic understanding. We can see King working that out in the practical and day-to-day life of the civil rights movement.
The last thing I want to discuss is King’s intellectual life at Crozer [Theological Seminary]. We do not know enough about that. I just want to make clear that the background of what he was studying at Crozer was World War II, Hitler, and the most devastating two wars in human history. And if the logics of World Wars I and II were to continue, humanity would ultimately destroy itself. But World Wars I and II were the wars that Europeans fought over who would dominate the resources of Africa and Asia—white men fighting one another over the colonial world, especially Africa, that they had divided among themselves in 1884. So they went into a situational suicidal set of wars over who would dominate the very people and lands that they had enslaved and colonized. You talk about irony, ambiguity, and contradiction—this is what was going on.
But then there was India, and there was Mahatma Gandhi, and there was the independence movement. Gandhi says, how do we free India, but also how do we save humanity from European values? Should we adopt their methods and their values to free ourselves? And of course, he said non-violence and direct action. Through Howard Thurman, King learns of the Gandhian philosophy of social action and social change.
But then there is something else that I don’t think King could get from Howard Thurman. … King graduates from Morehouse [College] when he is 19 years old. So he is a kid, but he is also a prodigy, intellectually a prodigy. … He looked at the German Church. Hitler rises; the Church is quiet. Only a very few churchmen and women stood up to oppose Hitler. One of them was a guy by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer had been in Harlem, at Abyssinian [Baptist Church], deeply influenced by Black spiritual life. He goes back; he does not accept the Church’s acquiescence to Hitler. Ultimately, he and a group of colleagues decide that they must act against Hitler, and hatch a plan to assassinate him. They fail; they were not trained assassins. Bonhoeffer is arrested, and 45 days before Hitler and the Nazis surrender, he is executed.
King and [others] have to take this into account and ask the question, how could Christians—under the notion that we do no harm to anyone, that we are pacifists—how could the Christian Church acquiesce to Hitler? This is where King gets the notion of the fierce urgency of now. Christians are not what Christians say they are; Christians are what they do. Christianity a la King is not the religion of pious and self-important individuals who dress up and go to church; but a Christian is one who acts against injustice.
And so, I want to end on this: the real Martin Luther King … by any measure, was a revolutionary. There is no question about it. And that’s why I [am emphasizing] the last speech, the speech that he gives a year to the day before he was assassinated—he gives the speech on April 4, 1967; he is assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., leading a march of Black sanitation workers.
Let me step back, though. Now I have to go to W.E.B. DuBois, “Black Reconstruction in America,” his most important work, but one of his least read works. The first chapter [is] entitled, “The Black Worker.” What King called the “enslaved Africans” was a Black proletariat. That word might not sit well with everybody, but I’m telling you what he called them. That’s what King was leading: they were not just sanitation workers—they were a part of this mass of Black workers.
Out of that struggle in Memphis comes the modern version of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. You see people walking around [in this hall] from DC 33? That goes back to Memphis! Out of that comes the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and probably the most powerful Black labor leader in the country today, William Lucy—directly from Memphis. King was leading this movement of the Black working class. Seventy-five to 80 percent of whom, right now as we speak, live in or near poverty. Some of our working-class communities not far from here: Go to Strawberry Mansion [a Philadelphia neighborhood]—100 percent unemployed! This is what he was leading.
What are the solutions to this massive, horrific, historically constituted [situation]—rooted in a slavery that has never died? We are still living it. White America is living it. And I can tell you, if we are honest, there are many Black people who are thinking and living like we lived under slavery. And it’s not our fault.
To resolve this problem, we have to transcend the methods and ideology of the fight for civil rights. We are now at the level of struggle for human rights and reparations. And the question for us, and we have to ask it even if we will never see it fulfilled: Can human rights for Black people and reparations for Africans at home and abroad be achieved under the system—let’s call it what it is, capitalism, and racism—that was built upon the free labor and super-exploitation of Africans all over the world. I think Martin Luther King answered it—no! When he talked about the “beloved community?” No! In his last speeches: Could America and the economic system of American be sustained? No!
The question is: Will we have the courage to do what is necessary, and to begin to organize for a future that we might not live to see?