King, Obama, and the Inner Core of Despotism
If humanism is locked outside the system, Negroes will have revealed its inner core of despotism…- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper&Row, 1968), 17.
Fifty years ago on August 28th, 250,000 Americans descended on Washington D.C. to demand an end to Jim Crow segregation and racial disenfranchisement in the U.S. South. Millions watched on television and listened on radio as eloquent Civil Rights heroes called for blacks to be granted the rights to vote, to attend integrated schools, and, in the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to "not be judged by the color of their skin but [rather] by the content of their character."
"To Cash a Check"
The pinnacle of the 1963 March on Washington (MOW) came with King’s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech – the one where he said among many things that white America had reneged on its promise of human rights and democracy, issued (he said) to blacks as well as whites. "In a sense," King said early in his speech:
"we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given to Negro people a bad check, – a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds’….But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
King’s 1963 speech, and key parts of it (particularly the six "I have a dream" stanzas and the ten "let freedom ring" passages in the oration’s last third) are already being played again and again on American television networks as the MOW’s 50th anniversary nears. We are shown pictures of King standing next to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson as Johnson signed into law the historic Civil Rights legislation of the mid1960s – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There are references to how tears formed in King’s eyes when he heard Johnson voice the slogan (and song title) of the Civil Rights Movement – "we shall overcome" – in the wake of the vicious racist beating of four Unitarian ministers who had come to join the struggle for black voting rights in the South in mid-March of 1965.
The overall theme in the mainstream commemoration will be one of triumph and progress on the path to what the nation’s first technically black president (FTBP) Barack Obama has called "a more perfect union."
There will be little if any reference in this celebratory memory to how unsatisfied and unimpressed Dr. King quickly became with the victories attained by civil rights forces between 1954 (year of the Supreme Court’s pivotal school-desegregation decision Brown v. Board of Education) and 1965. Also sent down George Orwell’s "memory hole" are how easy he felt those early and "luminous" victories were for the American white power structure to concede and how militant and radical King felt the next stage of black and broad popular struggle would have to become to achieve meaningful and lasting change in American life.
"The Goal of Freedom Was Still Distant"
Recently I happened upon a neat find in a used book store in Cedar Rapids. I stumbled on an original edition of King’s posthumously published book The Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper & Row, 1968) – a compilation of five lectures King gave over the Canadian Broadcasting System (CBC) during November and December of 1967, just five months before his assassination (or execution) in Memphis. The CBC had invited King to talk about anything he considered relevant not only in the U.S. but around the world.
The Trumpet of Conscience does not jibe well with the conventional whitewashed image of King as a mild reformer who wanted little more than a few small adjustments in a benevolent American System. In his first talk ("Impasse in Race Relations"), King reflected on how little the black freedom struggle has actually attained beyond some fractional changes in the South. He deplored "the arresting of the limited forward progress" blacks and their allies had attained "by [a] white resistance [that] revealed the latent racism that was [still] deeply rooted in U.S. society."
"As elation and expectations died," King explained, "Negroes became more sharply aware that the goal of freedom was still distant and our immediate plight was substantially still an agony of deprivation. In the past decade, little has been done for Northern ghettoes. Al the legislation was to remedy Southern conditions – and even these were only partially improved" (p.6).
Worse than merely limited, the gains won by black Americans during what King considered the "first phase" of their freedom struggle (1955-1965) were dangerous in that they "brought whites a sense of completion" – a preposterous impression that the so-called "Negro problem" had been solved and that there was therefore no more basis or justification for further black activism. "When Negroes assertively moved on to ascend to the second rung of the ladder," King noted, "a firm resistance from the white community developed….In some quarters it was a courteous rejection, in others it was a singing white backlash. In all quarters unmistakably it was outright resistance" (p.6).
"The White Man Does Not Abide by Law"
Explaining the remarkable wave of race riots that washed across U.S. cities in the summers of 1966 and 1967, King made no apologies for black violence. He blamed "the white power structure…still seeking to keep the walls of segregation and inequality intact" for the disturbance. He found the leading cause of the riots in the reactionary posture of "the white society, unprepared and unwilling to accept radical structural change," which produc[ed] chaos" by telling blacks (whose expectations for substantive change had been aroused) "that they must expect to remain permanently unequal and permanently poor" (9-10, emphasis added).
King also blamed the riots in part on Washington’s imperialist and mass-murderous "war in [here he might have better said "on"] Vietnam." The military aggression against Southeast Asia stole resources from Johnson’s briefly declared and barely fought "War on Poverty." It sent poor blacks to the front killing lines to a disproportionate degree. It advanced the notion that violence was a reasonable response and even a solution to social and political problems.
Black Americans and others sensed what King called "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 school. 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," King said in his second CBC lecture, adding that he "could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor" (p. 23).
Racial hypocrisy aside, King said in his second CBC talk that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense [here he might better have said "military empire"] than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom" (p.33).
Did the rioters disrespect the law, as their liberal and conservative critics alike charged? Yes, King said, but added that the rioters’ transgressions were "derivative crimes…born of the greater crimes of the…policy-makers of the white society," who "created discrimination…created slums. [and] perpetuate unemployment, ignorance, and poverty….[T]he white man," King elaborated, "does not abide by law in the ghetto. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provision of public services. The slums are a handiwork of a vicious system of the white society." (p.8).
Did the rioters engage in violence? Yes, King said in his fourth lecture, but noted that their aggression was "to a startling degree…focused against property rather than against people." He also observed that "property represents the white power structure, which [the rioters] were [understandably] attacking and trying to destroy" (pp. 56-57).
Against those who held property "sacred," King argued that "Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround with rights and respect, it has no personal being"
"The Roots are in the System"
What to do? King advanced significant policy changes that went against the grain of the nation’s corporate state, reflecting his agreement with New Left Radicals that "only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather in man or faulty operations" (p.40). King advocated an emergency national program providing either decent-paying jobs for all or a guaranteed national income "at levels that sustain life in decent circumstances." He also called tor "demolition of slums and rebuilding by the population that lives in them" (p. 14).
His proposals, he said, aimed for more than racial justice alone. Seeking to abolish poverty for all, including poor whites, he felt that "the Negro revolt" had come to challenge what he called "the interrelated triple evils" of racism, economic injustice/poverty (capitalism) and war (militarism and imperialism). It had "evolve[ed] into more than a quest for desegregation and equality" by becoming "a challenge to a system that has created miracles of production and technology to create justice."
"If humanism is locked outside the system," King said in his opening lecture, "Negroes will have revealed its inner core of despotism and a far grater struggle for liberation will unfold. The United States is substantially challenged to demonstrate that it can abolish not only the evils of racism but the scourge of poverty and the horrors of war…." (pp. 16-17, emphasis added).
There should be no doubt that King meant capitalism when he referred to "the system" and its "inner core of despotism."
"They Must Organize a Revolution…. Against the Privileged Minority of the Earth"
No careful listener to King’s CBC talks could have missed the radicalism of his vision and tactics. "The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both White and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society," King said in his fourth lecture. "They must organize a revolution against that injustice" (p. 59).
Such a revolution would require "more then a statement to the larger society," more than "street marches" King proclaimed. "There must," he added, "be a force that interrupts [that society’s] functioning at some key point." That force would use "mass civil disobedience" to "transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force" by "dislocate[ing] the functioning of a society."
"The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth," King added for good measure. "The storm will not abate until [there is a] just distribution of the fruits of the earth…" (p. 17). As this reference to the entire earth suggested, the "massive, active, nonviolent resistance to the evils of the modern system" (p. 48) that King advocated was "international in scope," reflecting the fact that "the poor countries are poor primarily because [rich Western nations] have exploited them through political or economic colonialism. Americans in particular must help their nation repent of her modern economic imperialism" (p. 62).
In the Trumpet of Conscience you read the purple passage of a democratic socialist mass-disobedience world revolution advocate who the guardians of national memory don’t want you know about when they commemorate the official, doctrinally imposed memory of King.
Regression, Betrayal, and "The Mendacity of [Obama] Hope"
The threat posed to that official memory by King’s CBC lectures – and by much more that King did and said and write in the last three years of his life – is not just that they show an officially iconic gradualist reformer to have been a radical opponent of the profits system and its empire. It is also about how clearly King analyzed the incomplete and unfinished nature of the nation’s progress against racial and class injustice, around which all forward developments pretty much ceased in the 1970s, thanks to a white backlash that was already well underway in the early and mid-1960s (before the rise of the Black Panthers) and to a top-down corporate war on working class Americans that started under Jimmy Carter and went ballistic under Ronald Reagan.
The "spiritual doom" imposed by militarism has lived on, with Washington having directly and indirectly killed untold millions of Iraqis, Central Americans, South Americans, Africans, Muslims, Arabs, and Asians in many different ways over the years since Vietnam. According for half the world’s obscene military expenditure, the U.S. maintains Cold War-level "defense" (empire) budgets to sustain an historically unmatched global killing machine (which operates from more than 1000 bases located in more than 100 "sovereign" nations) even as the current record-setting number of officially poor Americans remains stuck at 46 million, a very disproportionate number of whom are black and Latino/a.
It is ironic and shameful that Barack Obama keeps a bust of King in the White House’s oval office to watch over his regular betrayal of the martyred peace and justice leader’s ideals. Consistent with Dr. Adolph Reed Jr’s early (1996) dead-on description of the future FTBP as "a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics", President Obama has consistently backed top corporate and financial interests (whose representatives have filled and dominated his administrations, campaigns, and campaign coffers) over and against those who would undertake serious programs to end poverty, redistribute wealth (the savage re-concentration of which since Dr. King’s time has produced a New Gilded Age in the U.S.), constrain capital, and save livable ecology as it approaches a number of critical tipping points on the accelerating path to irreversible catastrophe. Thus is that one of Obama’s supporters was moved last fall to complain that a president "whose platform consists of Romney’s health care bill, Newt Gingrich’s environmental policies, John McCain’s deficit-financed payroll tax cuts, George W. Bush’s bailouts of filing banks and corporations, and a mixture of the Bush and Clinton tax rate" was still being denounced as a leftist enemy of business by the Republicans.
The FTBP has opposed calls for any special programs or serious federal attention to the nation’s savage racial inequalities, so vast now that the median of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. He has done this while the fact of his ascendency to the White House has deeply reinforced white America’s sense that racism is over as a barrier to black advancement and has generated its own significant white backlash that only worsens the situation of less privileged black Americans. He has made it clear that Dr. King’s unpaid promissory note will remain un-cashed under his watch – consistent with his preposterous 2007 campaign claim (at a commemoration of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March) to believe that blacks had already come "90 percent" of the way to equality in the U.S.
Completing the "triple evils" hat trick, Obama – he of the of personally approved Special Forces Global War on (of) Terror Kill List – has embraced and expanded upon the vast criminal and worldwide spying and killing operation he inherited from Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Bush. He has tamped down their spent and failed ground wars only to ramp up and inflate the role of unaccountable special force and drone attacks in the spirit of his dashing and reckless imperial role model John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In waging his deadly and disastrous air war on Libya, he did not even bother with the pretense of seeking Congressional approval. Meanwhile he has far outdone the dastardly Cheney-Bush regime when it comes to repressing antiwar dissenters, not to mention those who oppose the rule of the 1 percent – smashed by a coordinated federal campaign in the fall of 2011. He has richly validated the critical judgment of left-liberal commentator Roger Hodge in the aptly titled volume The Mendacity of Hope, based (like my own 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power) just on Obama’s first year in office:
"Barack Obama came to us with such great [liberal] promise….[but] as President, with few exceptions, Obama has merely changed the wallpaper and rearranged the furniture in the House: his financial policies are in essence those set in motion by George W. Bush and when it comes to the eternal 'global war on terror,’ he has stealthily embraced the unconstitutional war powers claimed by his predecessor or left the door open for their quiet adoption at some later date….the kidnapping and rendition of foreigners will continue and the Department of Justice persists in using the Bush administration’s doctrine of state secrets against those wrongfully detained and tortured by our security forces and allies….The principle of habeas corpus, sacred to candidate Obama as 'the essence of who we are,’ no longer seems so essential to a president who maintains secret prisons hidden from due process, judicial and congressional oversight, and the Red Cross. Waterboarding has been banned, but other forms of torture, such as sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation, and force-feeding, continue – as do….presidential signing statements and warrantless surveillance….the rule of law has not been restored; it has been perverted."
"A Calling Beyond National Allegiances"
Thinking of the FTBP’s imperial record, I am reminded of something King said in his second CBC lecture. Explaining why he had turned against the Vietnam War, King noted that "a burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964: I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission – a commission to work harder that I had ever worked before for 'the brotherhood of man.’ This is a calling which takes me beyond national allegiances …to the making of peace" (p.25).
If Obama really wants to honor the legacy of the man whose bust he keeps behind him as he pulls imperial levers, he could start by returning the Nobel Peace Prize he preposterously received in 2009. He should confess that the dirty and bloody wars he and his fellow commanders have waged on South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (not to mention the murderous coup he abided in Honduras) disqualify him from holding it any longer. He would admit that he should never have accepted the prize in the first place (something that would have been far better than going to Oslo to deliver an Orwellian address on the necessity of war in the name of peace), for his killing operations were already well underway. And to be sworn in as President of the United States is to ascend to a war criminal’s perch.
For his part, King politely but firmly turned down those who urged him to channel his national and global celebrity and eloquence into a run for the White House. He preferred, he said, to stand outside the political system, representing the "conscience" of all the nation’s political parties. It wasn’t about running for the U.S. presidency, of all things.
The Real (2013) Farce on Washington, Tomorrow
It is depressing to learn in the Washington Post that Obama has been tapped "to speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King spoke," in tomorrow’s official commemoration of the 1963 MOW. As the incisive black radical journalist and commentator Glen Ford notes, "Dr. King rejected U.S. empire, and broke with President Lyndon Johnson over the 'inter-related’ issues of foreign war and domestic poverty. There is not a shadow of a doubt that King would denounce Obama in the strongest terms, were he alive, today" (emphasis added).
Sponsored by MSNBC talk show host Al Sharpton’s so-called National Action Work and "a host of other labor and civil rights groups" (i.e., the NAACP, the National Urban League, SEIU, etc), tomorrow’s march to "Reclaim the Dream" is a pale neoliberal reflection of the original march. The speakers’ list is dominated by conservative corporate police-state Democrats, including Obama, Jimmy Carter (who rolled back civil rights protections as president and applauded the Zimmerman verdict this summer), Bill Clinton (who played off white backlash to attain the presidency and acted to escalate mass black incarceration and to eliminate welfare protections for poor black families during his time in power), Attorney General Eric Holder, Education Secretary Arne Duncan (a prolific corporate privatizer and standard-test-torturer of urban black schools) Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, National Urban League chief Marc Morial, and (of course) the next not-so-Black presidential hope Cory Booker, who has already been seen roaming the (already once again) Hillary-silted caucus stalks of Iowa. As Ford adds:
"For those who seek an independent Black politics that is faithful to the historical Black consensus for peace and social justice, the inclusion of President Barack Obama in the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington is a desecration. The ancestral sanctum is to be utterly defiled by the presence of the very personification of imperial savagery and a ballooning domestic police state….The organizers of this monumental self-debasement – this obscene groveling at the feet of Power – see Obama’s participation as the ultimate testimony to Black progress. Proximity to Power has always been their Dream. Dr. Martin Luther King serves as a mere prop in the ceremony….For the Black Misleadership Class, the great social movement in which Dr. King played such a pivotal role was brought forth, not to confront Power, but to integrate it. President Obama is the perfect blending – the literal embodiment of Black Power, in the warped worldview of the 2013 organizers. Dr. King has no place in this abomination, except to mark the tolling of the bell on his dream to overcome the three evils inherent in imperial capitalism: racism, militarism and materialism….It is a funereal occasion."
For what it’s worth, here’s what tomorrow "Reclaim the Dream" speaker Jimmy Carter recently told ABC News about the meaning of the Trayvon Martin- Zimmerman case for contemporary U.S. race relations: "I think eventually, no matter how deep the moral feelings and personal feelings might be among African Americans or others, with time passing they start seeing what can we do about the present and the future and put aside their feelings about the past. I think that’s what’s gonna happen in our country." A rather different sentiment than that articulated by Dr. King in the open stanzas of his iconic 1963 oration!
Presidential Color and Character
Thinking of Obama’s badly tainted legacy, I return to King’s admonition that we judge others not by the color of their skin but rather by the content of their character. Has the fake-progressive, fake-liberal and in fact deeply conservative FTBP not been granted far too much of a pass on the power-friendly and authoritarian content of his character by those who have been bamboozled into thinking there was something inherently and magically progressive, egalitarian, and democratic about the initially and outwardly startling fact of a black family entering the White House in the land of chattel slavery? As some of us on the Left said from the beginning of Obama’s celebrity, the real story behind the Obama phenomenon has been the ruling class playing the race card in a different way than in King’s time, flipping it, so to speak – a winning strategy for the Democrats at the national level in the post-Civil Rights era, when changing demographics and the more superficial victories of the Civil Rights Movement have made victory possible for nonwhite candidates in national elections.
A Testament of Non-Mendacious Hope
Perhaps Obama experience is at least a great lesson on how progressive change is about something much bigger than a change in the party or color of the people in nominal power. That is certainly something King (who would be 84 today) would have thought has been able to witness the endless mendacity of the FTBP first-hand. "The black revolution," King wrote in a posthumously published 1969 essay titled "A Testament of Hope" – embracing a very different sort of hope than that purveyed by Brand Obama in 2008 – "is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of out society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction society of society itself is the real issue to be faced."
Those words – words you will not likely hear via mainstream media during the coming half-century commemorations of the Civil Rights Movement’s great Sixties moments – ring as true and urgent as ever today, as it becomes undeniable that the profits system’s inner core of despotism is driving humanity over an environmental cliff and that it has become "[eco-] socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky."
Paul Street (email@example.com) is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Segregated Schools (Routledge, 2005) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014).
1. See David J.Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (HarperCollins, 1986), 382, 591-92; Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (Free Press, 2000), 87-88.
2. A useful review is William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Common courage Press, 2005). See also Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (South End Press, 1993) and Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (AK Press, 2003),
3. And with my description of Obama’s commitment and career in my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm 2008, written in 2007). See Adolph Reed, Jr., "The Curse of Community," Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000).
4. Ezra Klein, "Block Obama!," New York Review of Books, September 27, 2012, quoted in Perry Anderson, "Homeland," New Left Review 81 (May-June 2013).
5. For sources and details, see Paul Street, "The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Meaning of the Black Revolution," ZNet (March 17, 2013), http://www.zcommunications.org/the-pale-reflection-barack-obama-martin-luther-king-jr-and-the-meaning-of-the-black-revolution-by-paul-street.html
6. Roger Hodge, The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism (HarperCollins, 2019), 1-2.
7. For some early examples, see Paul Street, "The Nobel Gift: A Quick Note," ZNet (October 10, 2009), http://www.zcommunications.org/the-nobel-gift-a-quick-note-by-paul-street.html
10. Glen Ford, "The Black Mis-Leaders’ Love Fest With Power on the Mall," Black Agenda Report (August 21, 2013), http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/black-mis-leaders-love-fest-power-mall
11. Chris Good, "Jimmy Carter on George Zimmerman Verdict: 'Right Decision,’" ABC News (July 17, 2013), http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2013/07/jimmy-carter-on-george-zimmerman-verdict-right-decision/
12. Anderson, "Homeland."
13. Martin Luther King, Jr., "A Testament of Hope" (1969) in James Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King. Jr (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 315.
14. Among many possible citations, I especially recommend John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010