By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Jan. 20, 2023)
“The Southern (white) aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.” — Dr, Martin Luther King.
The FBI transcript of June 27, 1964, phone conversation reveals Malcolm X receiving a message from Martin Luther King, Jr. This message supported the idea of getting the human rights declaration of the United Nations to expose the unfair, vicious treatment of black people in America. Malcolm X replied that he was eager to meet Martin Luther King, Jr. If they had met and worked together, the radical King would be well known.
King’s speech to his staff in 1966 explained: “There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” If he had lived and pursued this project, the radical King would be well known.
On April 4, 1968, in Memphis – the last day of his life — Martin Luther King, Jr. phoned Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta with the title of his Sunday sermon: ‘Why America May Go to Hell’. The radical King would be well known if he preached this sermon.
Yet, in Dr, King’s own time he would repeatedly say, “I am greatly saddened . . . that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.”
Dr. King refused to silence his voice in his quest for unarmed truth and unconditional love. For King, the condition of truth was to allow suffering to speak; for him, justice was what love looked like in public. In King’s eyes, too many black leaders sacrificed the truth for access to and personal gain. This spiritual blackout among black leaders resulted in their use and abuse by the white political and economic establishment that constituted a ‘conspiracy against the poor’. This spiritual blackout – this lack of integrity and courage – primarily revealed a deep fear, failure of nerve, and spinelessness on behalf of black leaders. They too often were bootlickers for big moneyed interests, even as the boots were crushing poor and working people.
In stark contrast to this cowardice, King told his staff, ‘I’d rather be dead than afraid.’ Although much of America did not know the radical King – and too few know today – the FBI and US government did. They called him ‘the most dangerous man in America’. They knew Reverend King was a revolutionary Christian, sincere in his commitment and earnest in his calling.
They knew he was a product of a black prophetic tradition, full of fire in his bones, love in his heart, light in his mind, and courage in his soul. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the primary threat to the US government and the American establishment because he dared to organise and mobilise black rage over past and present crimes against humanity, targeting black folk and other oppressed people.
The fundamental question is: Does America have the capacity to hear and heed the radical King, or must America sanitise King to evade and avoid his challenge? King indeed had a dream. But it was not the American dream. King’s dream was rooted in the American Dream – it was what the quest for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness looked like for people enslaved and ‘Jim Crowed’, terrorised, traumatized and stigmatised by American laws and American citizens.
He called America a “sick society. “I have found out that all I have been doing to correct this system in America has been in vain. I am trying to get at its roots to see what ought to be done. The whole thing will have to be done away with.’” He asked Harry Belafonte days before his death, “Are we integrating into a burning house?” He was weary of pervasive economic injustice, cultural decay, and political paralysis.
Dr. King identified four catastrophes which must be fought: Militarism is an imperial catastrophe that has produced a military-industrial complex and national security state and warped the country’s priorities and stature.
Materialism is a spiritual catastrophe promoted by corporate media and a culture industry that has hardened the hearts of hard-core consumers and coarsened the consciences of would-be citizens.
Racism is a moral catastrophe, most graphically seen in the prison-industrial complex and targeted police surveillance in black and brown ghettos rendered invisible in public discourse. Arbitrary uses of the law in the name of the “war” on drugs have produced a new Jim Crow of mass incarceration.
Poverty is an economic catastrophe, inseparable from the power of greedy oligarchs and avaricious plutocrats indifferent to the misery of poor children, elderly and disabled citizens, and working people.
For King, dissent did not mean disloyalty – in fact, dissent was a high form of patriotism. When he said that the US government was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” he was not trashing America. He was telling the painful truth about a country he loved. King was never anti-American; he was always anti-injustice in America and anywhere else. Love of truth and love of country could go hand-in-hand.
The radical King was a spiritual giant who tried to shatter the callousness and indifference of his fellow citizens. King believed that indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself. This spiritual crisis is not reducible to politics or economics. It is rooted in the relative decline of integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue, primarily due to the role of big money in American life. This cold-hearted obsession with manipulation and domination drives our ecological catastrophe-in-the-making and our possible military Armageddon.
King knew that white supremacy was a global phenomenon. It remains shot through our hearts and minds, institutions and structures. Empire, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, and homophobia are linked in complex ways, and our struggles against them require moral consistency and systemic analyses.
The response of the radical King to our catastrophic moment can be put in one word: revolution— a revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life, and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.
This piece, with minor modifications, was first published on Jan. 16, 2018.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].