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Opinion The Martin Luther King they want us to forget

Ramzy Baroud believes King’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech, in which he linked the poverty of blacks at home to US imperialist adventurism abroad, remains as relevant today as it was in 1967

ON JANUARY 15, millions in the US commemorated Martin Luther King’s Day. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech was referred to numerous times in media outlets as a reminder of the evil of racism, which is being resurrected in a most pronounced way in US society today.

But that is only one version of King that is allowed to be broadcast — at least in polite company. The other, the revolutionary, radical and global King is kept hidden from view.

Exactly one year before he was assassinated, on April 4 1967, King delivered a truly scathing speech that challenged the state apparatus of the liberal hierarchy which pretended to be his allies. It was titled “Beyond Vietnam.”

“We must stop now,” he said, his voice thundering. “I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted.”

Then, he added these words, which sent much alarm among those who sought to isolate anti-war efforts from King’s own struggle. “I speak of the — for the — poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam.”

Unlike the more famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in the 1963 March on Washington, “Beyond Vietnam” pushed past the boundaries of what is acceptable to “liberal” US into whole new territories, where King’s anti-war and global solidarity values were unapologetically linked to the fight against racism and poverty at home.

On that day, the US civil rights struggle courageously joined a worldwide movement of struggles against racism, colonialism and war.

Unsurprisingly, King angered many in the white communities who were directly or indirectly affiliated to the Washington establishment.

Merely three days after the speech, the New York Times countered in its editorial: “There are no simple answers to the war in Vietnam or to racial justice in this country. Linking these hard-complex problems will lead not to solutions but to deeper confusion.”

In fact, there was no “confusion,” but total and complete clarity and coherence. To be truly meaningful, human rights values cannot be sectionalised and isolated from one another.

Yet, what alarmed the so-called liberals is the intellectual growth and awareness of the civil rights movement at the time, which matured enough to push for greater integration among all struggles.

A more vibrant and empowered King, aged only 38 years at the time, seemed to have fully fathomed the link between the oppression of poor blacks in US and the oppression of poor Vietnamese peasants abroad. They were all victims of what he dubbed the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.”

Right there and then, King had uttered a revolutionary and terrifying idea that might have contributed to his assassination a year later. Many of his allies outside the black communities began disowning him.

As I reflected on the plight of millions of refugees and poor migrants forced to leave their homes in Africa and the Middle East, driven by wars, corruption and extreme want, I remembered what he had said. “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.

“On the one hand, we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day, we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”

The metaphor of the road — to salvation, freedom, safety — was particularly emotive and foretelling.

If King was alive today, he would have certainly have made the refugees a top priority in his “revolution of values.”

Africa in particular, is being robbed. Tens of billions of dollars are being siphoned out of the continent, while black men and women are being sold into slavery in Libya and elsewhere.

Libya was torn apart by the Nato-led war that left the country without a government, a war that channelled massive armaments to neighbouring countries that led to new wars or resuscitated old conflicts.

According to the UN, there are nearly 700,000 African refugees in Libya who hope to reach Europe. The EU, which has fuelled the Libya conflict, has taken no responsibility for this crisis.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that 2,550 refugees and migrants died trying to cross to Europe from the Libyan coast in the first nine months of 2017. One of every 50 persons who embarks on the journey dies on that tragic “Jericho road.”

They do so while knowing the risk, because staying in Libya or going back home could mean a far worse fate.

While in Libya news reports speak of “slave markets,” in Israel, the country’s immigration ministry is offering civilians lucrative jobs to “locate, detain and monitor” African refugees, who are all being expelled from the country and left in other perilous regions.

In the US, the government and media, selectively exploit the legacy of King but behave in ways that are completely contrary to the true values of that noble man.

The US military is expanding its operations in Africa faster than in any other part of the world. This means more weapons, more political instability, coups, wars and eventually millions more of poor men, women and children being driven to flee, often to their own demise.

The King legacy, as presented in mainstream media, has become about the whitewashing of a racist, militaristic and materialistic system, though King himself has championed the exact opposite.

“Now let us begin,” he concluded in his anti-war speech. “Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”

Perhaps it is time, 50 years after his assassination, to truly listen.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.

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