[Marxism] MLK Jr. weeps from his grave

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 26 08:28:06 MDT 2011

NY Times op-ed August 25, 2011
Dr. King Weeps From His Grave

Princeton, N.J.

THE Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was to be dedicated on the 
National Mall on Sunday — exactly 56 years after the murder of 
Emmett Till in Mississippi and 48 years after the historic March 
on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Because of Hurricane Irene, 
the ceremony has been postponed.)

These events constitute major milestones in the turbulent history 
of race and democracy in America, and the undeniable success of 
the civil rights movement — culminating in the election of Barack 
Obama in 2008 — warrants our attention and elation. Yet the 
prophetic words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel still haunt us: 
“The whole future of America depends on the impact and influence 
of Dr. King.”

Rabbi Heschel spoke those words during the last years of King’s 
life, when 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks 
disapproved of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his 
efforts to eradicate poverty in America. King’s dream of a more 
democratic America had become, in his words, “a nightmare,” owing 
to the persistence of “racism, poverty, militarism and 
materialism.” He called America a “sick society.” On the Sunday 
after his assassination, in 1968, he was to have preached a sermon 
titled “Why America May Go to Hell.”

King did not think that America ought to go to hell, but rather 
that it might go to hell owing to its economic injustice, cultural 
decay and political paralysis. He was not an American Gibbon, 
chronicling the decline and fall of the American empire, but a 
courageous and visionary Christian blues man, fighting with style 
and love in the face of the four catastrophes he identified.

Militarism is an imperial catastrophe that has produced a 
military-industrial complex and national security state and warped 
the country’s priorities and stature (as with the immoral drones, 
dropping bombs on innocent civilians). Materialism is a spiritual 
catastrophe, promoted by a corporate media multiplex and a culture 
industry that have hardened the hearts of hard-core consumers and 
coarsened the consciences of would-be citizens. Clever gimmicks of 
mass distraction yield a cheap soulcraft of addicted and 
self-medicated narcissists.

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, in the legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s apt phrase, a 
new Jim Crow of mass incarceration. And poverty is an economic 
catastrophe, inseparable from the power of greedy oligarchs and 
avaricious plutocrats indifferent to the misery of poor children, 
elderly citizens and working people.

The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s 
prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic 
vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the 
form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, 
infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts 
for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on 
the backs of the vulnerable.

As the talk show host Tavis Smiley and I have said in our national 
tour against poverty, the recent budget deal is only the latest 
phase of a 30-year, top-down, one-sided war against the poor and 
working people in the name of a morally bankrupt policy of 
deregulating markets, lowering taxes and cutting spending for 
those already socially neglected and economically abandoned. Our 
two main political parties, each beholden to big money, offer 
merely alternative versions of oligarchic rule.

The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and 
working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the 
moment with credible claims about government corruption and 
ridiculous claims about tax cuts’ stimulating growth. This 
right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King’s four 
catastrophes; its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most 

King weeps from his grave. He never confused substance with 
symbolism. He never conflated a flesh and blood sacrifice with a 
stone and mortar edifice. We rightly celebrate his substance and 
sacrifice because he loved us all so deeply. Let us not remain 
satisfied with symbolism because we too often fear the challenge 
he embraced. Our greatest writer, Herman Melville, who spent his 
life in love with America even as he was our most fierce critic of 
the myth of American exceptionalism, noted, “Truth 
uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the 
conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an 
architectural finial.”

King’s response to our crisis 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.

In concrete terms, this means support for progressive politicians 
like Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Mark Ridley-Thomas, a 
Los Angeles County supervisor; extensive community and media 
organizing; civil disobedience; and life and death confrontations 
with the powers that be. Like King, we need to put on our cemetery 
clothes and be coffin-ready for the next great democratic battle.

Cornel West, a philosopher, is a professor at Princeton.

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