Day 28 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.
Excerpting Obey Hendricks (photo above) in “Why Martin Luther King had to Die” (April 4, 2014):
The indictments King offered of capitalism and the class inequality that bedeviled American society during his travels were considered extremely inflammatory by members of the power elite. To one audience he said, “We’re dealing in a sense with class issues, we’re dealing with the problem between the haves and the have-nots.” He told a New York Times reporter, “In a sense, you could say that we’re involved in a class struggle.” Elsewhere he declared, “we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” King was now no longer talking about civil rights; he was talking systemic change, even structural revolution: “I think we must see the great distinction here between a reform movement and a revolutionary movement.” He made it clear that what he advocated was a revolutionary movement and revolutionary action that would “raise certain basic questions about the whole society…. [T]his means a revolution of values” that for him went beyond issues of race. To King that meant, as he said more than once, that “the whole structure of American life must be changed.”
To this end King told his staff that it was time to “forge new tactics which do not depend on government good will, but instead serve to compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice.” What he was talking about was “aggressive nonviolence.” He said, “We aren’t going to Washington to beg, we are going to Washington to demand what is ours.” He indicated that he was even willing to engage in “nonviolent sabotage” to shut down the nation’s capital so the needs of the poor would get the full attention of those who held the purse strings and the reins of power. “[O]ur struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” he proclaimed. The class nature of the campaign’s aspirations was potentially the greatest internal threat to America’s capitalist order the nation had ever seen…
Undergirding the fear of the Poor People’s Campaign was “Time to Break the Silence,” King’s controversial public confession of his unequivocal opposition to the Vietnam War. In that speech he declared that the war and the widespread poverty in America were both the tragic consequence of capitalist greed and exploitation. He decried “individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America” who “take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.” King’s powerful critique went straight to the heart of capitalist society. He proclaimed, “[A]n edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” Thus a successful Poor People’s Campaign with King at the head threatened both the capitalist economic status quo and their profiteering on the war.
As with the Halliburton Corporation in the Iraq War, much of corporate America was raking in billions of revenue dollars from the Vietnam War. The war was draining the US Treasury to the tune of $20-25 billion per year by 1968, yet the largest corporations were extremely profitable. For instance, in 1966 three of the four largest US firms operating in Vietnam ranked in the top ten most profitable of the 400 American firms doing business abroad. The year before that the Caterpillar Corporation announced record profits that its annual report attributed to its business connected to the war in Vietnam.
That corporate capitalists and elite bankers and lawyers understood the war in terms of the economic interests and new product markets that Vietnam represented is seen in the roster of President Lyndon Johnson’s major foreign policy advisors. The roster included several of the most powerful attorneys and corporate heads in America, including the lead counsel for both General Motors and the wealthy, politically influential du Pont family; several senior partners of prestigious “white shoe” Wall Street corporate law firms; and perhaps the most powerful of all Wall Street lawyers, the legendary John J. MCCloy. Johnson’s appointees to a propaganda committee that was charged with garnering public support for the war included presidents and directors of the largest American multi-national banks and directors of the largest American corporations. Johnson’s most influential advisor was a corporate lawyer who was so intimately involved in the workings of Lehman Brothers, then one of the most powerful investment banking firms, that he was considered an “honorary partner.”
Thus the political platform and exposure that the Poor People’s Campaign could offer King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his anti-capitalist declaration of class warfare gave those invested in maintaining the economic and political status quo more than enough reason to neutralize the threat that King presented. Indeed, several of his top lieutenants voiced strong doubts about its feasibility. With King gone, the Poor People’s Campaign would surely be a an ineffective protest, if not a complete failure.* Is this why Martin Luther King was killed as the Campaign was gearing to start?
There remain numerous questions to be answered about the circumstances of King’s death. Still, many observers summarily reject the notion that his death was the result of a conspiracy of subjects known or unknown. Yet in December, 1999, after hearing the testimony of over 70 witnesses, including the owner of a restaurant close to the murder scene who admitted his complicity in the plot to kill King, an interracial jury in Shelby, Tennessee unanimously concluded that King’s murder was the result of a conspiracy of unnamed “governmental agencies.” A June, 2000 report of the United States Department of Justice disputed the verdict as flawed and based on numerous factual inaccuracies. It recommended that there be no further investigation unless new corroborated evidence is presented. However, the family of Martin Luther King remains convinced that he was the victim of a conspiracy of persons unknown, as do his closest aides. And, again, many questions remain unanswered.
The public will probably never conclusively know whether King’s assassination was indeed the work of conspirators and if it was related to fear of an effective Poor People’s Campaign. Yet we do know that the specter of the economic radical that Martin Luther King had become, standing at the head of a successful Poor People’s Campaign of many hundreds of thousands, demanding sweeping restructuring of the political economy, posed a threat to the federal government and the capitalist class of potentially enormous magnitude.
Thus it might be said that King’s April 4, 1967 speech condemning the Vietnam War was his death warrant, and that his determination that America realize true economic democracy for all signed it. And one can plausibly conclude as well that it was protectors of the unjust status quo who executed it.