Civil rights martyr is too revolutionary for Obama
Published 31/08/2011 | 08:00
Long-laid plans to unveil a statue of Martin Luther King Jr at the National Mall in Washington were blown away by tropical storm Irene at the weekend. The memorial will now be inaugurated in September.
It will stand between the statues of Lincoln and Jefferson and, at 28ft, will be 10ft higher than either. No other figure who wasn't a US president has been accorded such a monumental honour.
King must be revered above all others in US history. Or else his legacy still frightens the political elite.
It was observed almost 100 years ago: "During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hound them, receive their theories with the most savage malice... After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons... while robbing their revolutionary ideas of substance."
That was Lenin. None of the apparatchiks around him paid heed. After his death in 1924, his body was embalmed and put on grisly exhibition in Red Square. The monument to Dr King won't be as gruesome, but the intention is little different.
What the Washington establishment fears is not King's role as a civil-rights leader, but the fact that in his last years, he had moved sharply to the Left, to the brink of revolutionary ideas.
This part of his life is largely omitted from the paeans of praise now routinely heaped upon his memory. Many documentary accounts move directly from his "I have a dream" speech at Washington's Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 to his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968.
No one, other than outright racists, now argues that the achievements associated with King's civil-rights campaigning are regrettable. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are incontestable across the political spectrum.
But the passionate opposition to the war against Vietnam which characterised the last phase of King's political activity still excites unease, even alarm - not least in the White House under Barack Obama.
Obama's wariness of King came through in a remarkable passage in his acceptance speech for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, in which he directly contradicted his fellow laureate of 45 years earlier.
"I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago: 'Violence never brings permanent peace.' But as a head of state, sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [King's and Gandhi's] examples alone. I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people...The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace."
King came slowly, even reluctantly, to public opposition to the war. He was urged by his closest advisers to steer clear of the issue for fear of alienating powerful elements - most notably President Lyndon Johnson - who were willing to support civil-rights reforms, but would see criticism of the war as treachery.
King's first set-piece speech against the war came on April 4, 1967 - a year to the day before his assassination - at the Riverside Church in New York. "A time has come when silence is betrayal," he began. He described "my own government" as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today".
King went on: "Somehow, this madness must cease. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam and the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam." The people of Vietnam "must see Americans as strange liberators".
The extent of the current US administration's awareness of the jagged contradiction between King's words and Obama's actions was evident at a ceremony in the Pentagon marking Martin Luther King Day on January 13 this year, when the Department of Defense's general counsel, Jeh Johnson, suggested that: "If Dr King were alive today, he would recognise... that our nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack."
There is nothing in the record to suggest that Dr King would have recognised any such thing.
Harry Belafonte better represents King's legacy. At a Lincoln Memorial rally for jobs in October last year, the 83-year-old singer urged a crowd of a quarter of a million to "rekindle his dream and once again hope that America will soon come to the realisation that the wars we are waging today in faraway lands are immoral, unconscionable and unwinnable". That's more like it, more like Martin Luther King.
We would do well to memorialise Dr King in our minds. Barack Obama memorialises a cynical myth. Dr King was a great man. Obama is an empty vessel.