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
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
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 the world?
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 by
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
"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 economy."
"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 for all."
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).