On June 3, 1958, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his sermon, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” to the Commission on Ecumenical Missions and Relations of the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. Though historians, theologians and freedom fighters rarely consult this sermon, within it King prophetically imagined what the Apostle Paul might possibly have to say to an American nation fraught with incessant racial animus, riot, and poverty.
“I understand that you have an economic system in America known as capitalism,” King wrote, “and through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous.”
Yet, King’s remarks did not end there. “The misuse of capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation,” he declared boldly. “They tell me that one-tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh, America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be truly a Christian nation, you must solve this problem.”
Ten years later, on April 3, 1968, King delivered what would be his last speech, though when one hears the cadence, the far-sighted rumination, and the righteous indignation in his voice, his speech was certainly nothing short of a Black church sermon. In the speech, “I Have Been To The Mountaintop,” King not only called for striking Memphis sanitation workers to engage in a nonviolent citywide strike, but concluded with a poetic vision of freedom.
“Our Sick White Brothers”
That vision, however, was not offered before mentioning in the “Mountaintop” speech the threats he had received from “our sick white brothers.” Yet, those threats were no match for a movement fueled by Black men and women like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, and King.
And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?–MLK
“I just want to do God’s will,” King exclaimed in his closing. “And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” King’s emphasis on “we”—sonically—matters.
Yet, one must question why King’s critique of what Cedric Robinson, a professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, would later call, “racial capitalism,” continues to be whitewashed and flattened by White liberals and conservatives alike.
Consider, for instance, how just last year, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Celebrate Martin Luther King Day and all of the many wonderful things that he stood for. Honor him for being the great man that he was!”
Now, how can a man, who has—in more ways than one—dehumanized, targeted, and violated Black and non-Black people of color through policy implementation, public discourse often via Twitter, and in presidential appearances, even utter from his allegedly “very stable genius” mind, such absurd contradictions?
To make matters worse, Neo-Nazi sypathizer Jeffrey Lord compared Trump to Dr. King, stating, “In Dr. King’s day, the objective was negotiation that would lead to the passage of civil rights legislation. Today, President Trump is using the threat of crisis to negotiate his stated objective of legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare. Different goals, yes. But the strategy of creating a crisis to obtain a specific legislative outcome is exactly the same.”
The inability to recognize the radicalism of King’s legacy is part of an Americanizing narrative of universalism, in which all persons and citizens are deemed equal, even when “equal” or “equality” is not a reality for Black people. We live in a nation that continues to criminalize Black youth, create conditions where lead runs in Flint water, incarcerates Black people at five times the rate of white people, and causes the premature death of Black women such as Erica Garner, whose heart ache and heart trouble was the result of systemic racism, sexism, and anti-Black policing.
Indeed, King’s critique of the war in Vietnam was a commentary on gun control, globalism, nation building, and imperialism. The Poor People’s Campaign was not only an appraisal of capitalism, but was also a re-imagination of a world that privileges the white and wealthy and discards the Black poor. In his statement, on the behalf of the Southern Leadership Conference, dated December 4, 1967, King commented, “The [SCLC] will lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington, D. C., next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all.”
“We Will Demand To Be Heard”
Socialist in its approach, King and the SCLC had realized that capitalism was objectionable (even as he called some of its effects “marvelous” in 1958), and that no person should be without while a select few have more than they will ever need. To this point, he continued, “We will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination.”
“We will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before.” –MLK
These are King’s words and we must re-center them in a moment in which Washington and all who are followers of white nationalism are titillated by historical amnesia and fake news. And so as we reflect on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, let us also recall the life he lived and the politics he preached up until he was assassinated by 50 years ago by White supremacists.
Let us reckon with the fact that he was imperfect and that he had some questionable extramarital affairs, but, or perhaps more candidly, and he still called us to imagine a different world, one where racist politicians who preach White supremacist, Evangelical values are not presidents; one where organizers like Erica Garner do not have to fight every single day of their lives; one where Black people are not hungry, without water, or suffering from the debilitating effects of poverty. That is the world King and his contemporaries were visioning for us, and we are indebted to his call to resist, march, speak up, and demand that that new world emerges.
But until then, let us work towards the end of this current world—which is not to be confused with “Earth”—so that we may be able to live without anti-blackness, White supremacy, and racial capitalism.