Mug shots of Martin Luther King Jr. following his 1963 arrest in Birmingham, Ala., for protesting the treatment of blacks. (Wikimedia)
We are now experiencing the coming to the surface of a triple prong sickness … [that] has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning … the sickness of racism, excessive materialism and militarism. … the plague of western civilization.
—Martin Luther King, Aug. 31, 1967
We kill the most beautiful among us—anyone, it seems, who reveals the nastier, brutish elements of American society and has the audacity to imagine, demand even, a better path: peace, unity and tolerance. Abraham Lincoln, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and so many others.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of King’s tragic assassination, and though countless publications will brim with commemorations and retrospectives of this misunderstood icon, most will miss the mark. Long ago co-opted and sanitized by mainstream political figures, the King of memory bears little resemblance to the radical, complex man himself.
He’s remembered by Democrats and Republicans alike as the “good,” “peaceful” civil rights leader—a useful foil for the “bad” activists of the black power movement, the Stokely Carmichaels, Malcolm Xs and Huey Newtons of the world. In reality, the categories were never so neat, the commonalities staggering.
In a sense, we all—white and black, liberal and conservative—have our own King. My King is the provocative King, the critic of bigotry but also of capitalism and the Vietnam War. The King, in truth, who has been willfully concealed from view.
When I arrived at the American history department at West Point in 2014, I—a white, heterosexual, military man—was handed the portfolio and teaching load on civil rights. Everyone else, it seemed, studied the American Revolution or the Civil War, and, well, I came across as vaguely progressive and willing, at least compared with my peers. A former student of counterinsurgency operations in Northern Ireland, I decided to ditch the old scholarship and embrace my new role. I’ve never looked back. I taught classes and led an annual summer excursion for cadets to visit with movement veterans across the South. I, along with two academy law professors, faced an immediate challenge: the cadets’—and most Americans’—utter misunderstanding of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King himself.
After 50 years, with the United States again locked in racial conflict, culture wars, gaping inequality and perpetual global war, now seems as good a time as any to take stock of the state of King’s “three evils”: racism, materialism and militarism.
America’s Original Sin: Race and Privilege
The cry of “Black Power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear … the economic plight of the Negro poor.
They are all linked, by the way. To treat each challenge as discrete is to rob them of their intertwined, inescapable power. Racism is a no-brainer. We’ve not come as far as we like to believe. Sure, there’s been the Brown v. Board ruling, Civil and Voting Rights Acts, even a black president. Nevertheless, each of these historic victories is being rolled back before our eyes. Schools are again as segregated as they’ve been in two generations. Conservative courts have dismantled key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Heck, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions—a man too racist to serve as a federal district judge in the 1980s—heads the Justice Department.
Race and empire are intimately connected. Look only to the unprecedented militarization of the nation’s police—decked out in camo fatigues and sporting the same armored vehicles we drove in Baghdad—and the never-ending catalog of racially charged brutality cases nationwide for evidence. America resembles two armed camps, physically and intellectually isolated from each other. Five decades into an unwinnable and racially biased war on drugs, black men still fill the prisons in this nation—which has by far the highest rate of incarceration worldwide. In 2018 in the U.S., a black male is nine times as likely to serve time as a citizen of the next worst country: Cuba. We’ve got a long way to go.
The Unspoken King: Anti-Capitalism and Counter-Materialism
The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.
The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.
We inhabit a peculiar moment, when most Americans hardly look up from their smartphones long enough to realize they’re missing “Real Housewives.” The vacuous world of celebrity worship and material preoccupation does not lend itself to the impassioned activism King demanded. Unfettered, free-market capitalism—enabled by neoliberal Democrats like the Clintons—has gutted the American dream and rendered it an unattainable nightmare for many. The empirical evidence is staggering.
Income inequality in the (ostensibly) egalitarian United States has reached its worst levels since the Gilded Age. Wages for the working class have been stagnant for 40 years, while the superrich bask in an embarrassment of riches. The federal minimum wage is worth less in real dollars than it was 50 years ago.
Yet it’s all so much worse than that. Obsessive materialism and big money (think pharma, oil, fracking) in politics have set American culture in the express lane to existential disaster. Most of us live a delusion, wishing away the gathering storm of global warming while chasing immediate gratification from social media clicks. Soon after President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, Syria finally joined up, making America the true, lone international pariah. Really doubling down, Trump’s recently released National Security Strategy completely removed climate change from the Pentagon’s list of threats. I’m sure King would approve.
The Greatest Purveyor of Violence: American Militarism, 50 Years On