A vast chorus of voices has been quick to point to Barack Obama as the fruit of Martin Luther King’s “Dream.” I have my doubts. Here are some excerpts from Reverend King’s famous, but rarely quoted, speech at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, just exactly a year before he was assassinated in Memphis (substitute “Iraq” for “Vietnam” in this speech and it’s frighteningly accurate):
It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor – both black and white – through the Poverty Program.Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political play thing of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the young black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
My third reason grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years – especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action. But, they asked, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy, and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. (We have now been doing it for two generations.–MH) We will be marching and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years (now fifty–MH) we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military “advisors” in Venezuela. The need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia (still happening, 40 years later–MH) and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. With such activity in mind, the words of John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. When machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look easily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: ” This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands 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 re-ordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.
—Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Riverside Church, NYC, April 4, 1967
Barack Obama, for all his “hopeful” rhetoric, would not dare endorse this radical analysis of American reality, which, sadly, is as true today as it was over forty years ago. The “death wish” continues to dominate. Obama proposes to give us guns and butter, as they say, but we know from the last forty years that it will be guns today and butter tomorrow, always tomorrow, because the sellers of guns are very skilled at keeping their noses in the trough. Obama’s pledges to build our military will be kept, because that is how the system is set up. He will throw a few crumbs to the poor and the middle class–who are rapidly joining the ranks of the poor–but it is clear from his speeches and the company he keeps that he is as committed to maintaining American hegemony as John McCain, both Bushes, and Bill Clinton. He is not the heir of Rev. King’s vision. He is just Colin Powell with charisma. If Atlanta is looking for new sources of energy, I suggest they hook a generator up to Reverend King’s tomb, because he must be spinning in his grave.
Now, this kind of talk is going to piss off a lot of people, because to most people badmouthing Obama implies support for a McCain-Palin ticket. Would I really rather see a PTSD-plagued, nearly senile reptile and a clueless Christian Dominionist bimbo run the country? Wouldn’t I rather try and pull Obama left than pull McCain towards the center?
Frankly, I have to take a deep breath and say yes, I think it IS a tossup, when you look at Obama as a slick, charismatic near-neocon partnered with an imperialist-drug warrior patsy for the financial-insurance-real estate tycoons. To those who think they will be able to pull Obama left, I say, don’t kid yourselves–bigger money than you’ll ever see is moving him where it wants him to go. I think it is a sad indication of just how unfree we are in this country when, at a time when we are facing momentous challenges and changes, these phonies are given the spotlight, and candidates like the Green Party’s Cynthia McKinney and independent Ralph Nader, who have real answers to the real questions at hand and should be dominating the race, are ignored by the tycoon-directed mainstream media and the public.
I think the country will come unglued faster if McCain wins, and slower if Obama wins. I don’t think it will be pretty in either case, even though I believe the country needs to come unglued, so that maybe we can put it back together a little smarter than it is now. I am not prescient enough to know whether a faster or a slower collapse would be better. I just know that I would rather vote for what I want and not get it than vote for what I don’t want and get it. You make up your own mind.