This article originally appeared in Znet.
One of the many disturbing characteristics of dominant American
ideology is the way it deletes radical-democratic beliefs from the
official memory of certain acknowledged great historical personalities.
How many Americans know that the celebrated scientist Albert Einstein
(voted the "Man of the 20th Century" by Time Magazine)
was a self-proclaimed
leftist who wrote an essay titled "Why Socialism"
for the first issue of the venerable Marxist journal Monthly Review?
Probably about as many as who know that Helen Keller
(typically recalled as an example of what people can attain through
purely individual initiative or "self-help") was a radical
fan of the Russian Revolution.
Or that Thomas Jefferson despised the developing state capitalism
of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, warning that it was creating
a new absolutism of concentrated power more dangerous than the one
Americans rebelled against in 1776.
We might also consider the all-too deleted radical
egalitarianism of an itinerant Mediterranean-Jewish peasant named
Jesus. Jesus rejected the dominant classist cultural norms
of his time by advocating and practicing open commensality (the
shared taking of food by people of all classes, races, ethnicities,
and genders) and by sharing material and spiritual gifts across
the interrelated hierarchies of social and geographical place. As
biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan notes, he saw the "Kingdom
of God" as "a community of radical equality, unmediated
by established brokers or fixed locations."
Along the way, Jesus is reputed to have said that
it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than
for a rich man to enter that kingdom. He condemned the personal
accumulation of earthly treasures and made it clear that God was
no respecter of rich persons. He insisted that one must serve
either God or Mammon and pronounced the poor blessed and inheritors
of the earth. (Mathew 19:20-24, 6:19, 6:24.)
Such radical sentiments are largely absent from the vapid, falsely
comforting, reactionary, and institutionalized twaddle that has
so long passed for "Christianity" in corporate America.
Another example of this radical historical whitewashing
is provided by America's own Martin Luther King, Jr., whose "I
Have a Dream" speech is routinely broadcast and praised across
the land on the national holiday named for him. In the official,
domesticated version of King's life, the great civil rights leader
sought little more than the overthrow of Jim Crow segregation and
voting rights for blacks in the U.S. South. Beyond these victories,
the "good Negro" that American ideological authorities
wish for King to have been only wanted whites to be nicer to a select
few African-Americans – giving some small number of trusted blacks
highly visible public positions (Secretary of State?), places on
the Ten O'Clock News Team, the right to manage a baseball team and/or
an occasional Academy Award and/or their own television show.
How many Americans know that King was rather unimpressed by his
movement's mid-1960s triumphs over southern racism (and
his own 1964 Nobel Prize), viewing the Voting Rights and Civil Rights
Acts as relatively partial and merely bourgeois accomplishments
that dangerously encouraged mainstream white America to think that
the nation's racial problems "were automatically solved"?
How many know that King considered these early victories to
have fallen far short of his deeper objective: advancing social,
economic, political, and racial justice across the entire nation
(including its northern, ghetto-scarred cities) and indeed around
How many Americans know about the King who followed the defeat of
open racism in the South by "turning North" in an effort
to take the civil rights struggle to a radical new level?
It was one thing, this King told his colleagues, for blacks to win
the right to sit at a lunch counter. It was another thing
for black and other poor people to get the money to buy a lunch.
It was one thing, King argued, to open the doors of opportunity
for some few and relatively privileged African-Americans. It was
another thing to move millions of black and other disadvantaged
people out of economic despair. It was another and related
thing to dismantle slums and overcome the deep structural and societal
barriers to equality that continued after public bigotry was discredited
and after open discrimination was outlawed.
It was one thing, King felt, to defeat the overt racism of snarling
southerners like Bull Connor; it was another thing to confront the
deeper, more covert institutional racism that lived beneath the
less openly bigoted, smiling face of northern and urban liberalism.
It was one thing. King noted, to defeat the anachronistic
caste structure of the South. It was another thing to attain
substantive social and economic equality for black and other economically
disadvantaged people across the entire nation.
How many Americans know about the King who linked racial and social
inequality at home to (American) imperialism and social disparity
abroad, denouncing what he called "the triple evils that are
interrelated": "racism, economic exploitation, and war"?
"A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years,"
the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) in 1967, "will
'thingify' them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit
them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation
that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments
and everything else, and will have to use its military might to
protect them. All of these problems are tied together"
How many Americans have been encouraged to know the King who responded
to America's massive assault on Southeast Asia during the 1960s
the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the
world today,” adding (in words that ought to give George W. Bush
pause) that America had no
business "fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese
people when we have not put even our own [freedom] house in order?"
In words that holding haunting relevance for George W. Bush's supposedly
divinely mandated war on Iraq, King proclaimed that "God didn't
call American to do what she's doing in the world now. God
didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war, [such]
as the war in Vietnam."
"And we," King
added, "are criminals in that war. We have committed
more war crimes almost than any other nation in the world and we
won't stop because of our pride, our arrogance as a nation."
How many know that King said a nation (the U.S.) "approach[ed]
spiritual death" when it spent billions of dollars feeding
its costly, cancerous military industrial complex" while masses
of its children lived in poverty in its outwardly prosperous cities?
How many know the King who said that Americans should
follow Jesus in being "maladjusted" and "divine[ly]
dissatisifed...until the tragic walls that separate the outer city
of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair
shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice....
until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history and every family
is living in a decent home...[and] men will recognize that out of
one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth"?
How many know the King who told the SCLC that "the movement
must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of
American society. There are forty million poor people,"
King elaborated for his colleagues. "And one day we must ask
the question, 'Why are there forty million poor people in America?'
And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions
about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.
When you ask that question you begin to question the capitalistic
"We are called upon," King told his fellow civil rights
activists, ''to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace.
But one day," he argued, "we must come to see that
an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It
means that [radical] questions must be raised.....'Who owns the
oil'...'Who owns the iron ore?'...'Why is it that people have to
pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?'”
How many know that King was a democratic socialist who thought that
only "drastic reforms" involving the "radical reconstruction
of society itself" could "save us from social catastrophe"?
Consistent with Marx and contrary to bourgeois moralists like
Charles Dickens, King argued that "the roots" of the economic
injustice he sought to overcome "are in the [capitalist] system
rather [than] in men or faulty operations"
Interestingly enough, the fourth officially de-radicalized historical
character mentioned in this essay (King) saw through the conservative
historical whitewashing of the third (Jesus). Here's how King described
Jesus at the end of an essay published eight months after the civil
rights leader was assassinated: "A voice out of Bethlehem two
thousand years ago said that all men are equal.... Jesus of Nazareth
wrote no books; he owned no property to endow him with influence.
He had no friends in the courts of the powerful. But
he changed the course of mankind with only the poor and the despised."
King concluded this final essay, titled "A Testament of Hope,"
with a strikingly radical claim, indicating his strong identification
with society's most disadvantaged and outcast persons. "Naive
and unsophisticated though we may be," King said, "the
poor and despised of the twentieth century will revolutionize this
era. In our 'arrogance, lawlessness, and ingratitude,' we
will fight for human justice, brotherhood, secure peace, and abundance
If I hadn't known better the first time I read that phrase, I might
have attributed it to Eugene Debs.
Paul Street ([email protected])
is currently teaching a course on the history of the civil rights
movement at Northern Illinois University and is the author of Empire
and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (www.paradigmpublishers,
2004) and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil
Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005).