The Martin Luther King you don't see on TV
By JEFF COHEN and NORMAN SOLOMON*
It's become a TV ritual: Every year in mid-January, around
the time of Martin Luther King's birthday, we get perfunctory network news reports
about "the slain civil rights leader."
The remarkable thing about this annual review of King's
life is that several years -- his last years -- are totally missing, as if flushed
down a memory hole.
What TV viewers see is a closed loop of familiar file
footage: King battling desegregation in Birmingham (1963); reciting his dream
of racial harmony at the rally in Washington (1963); marching for voting rights
in Selma, Alabama (1965); and finally, lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis
An alert viewer might notice that the chronology jumps
from 1965 to 1968. Yet King didn't take a sabbatical near the end of his life.
In fact, he was speaking and organizing as diligently as ever.
Almost all of those speeches were filmed or taped. But
they're not shown today on TV.
It's because national news media have never come to terms
with what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for during his final years.
In the early 1960s, when King focused his challenge on
legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media were his allies.
Network TV and national publications graphically showed the police dogs and bullwhips
and cattle prods used against Southern blacks who sought the right to vote or
to eat at a public lunch counter.
But after passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965,
King began challenging the nation's fundamental priorities. He maintained that
civil rights laws were empty without "human rights" -- including economic rights.
For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said,
anti-discrimination laws were hollow.
Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty
line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income
gaps between rich and poor, and called for "radical changes in the structure
of our society" to redistribute wealth and power.
"True compassion," King declared, "is more than flinging
a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs
By 1967, King had also become the country's most prominent
opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy,
which he deemed militaristic. In his "Beyond Vietnam" speech delivered at New
York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 -- a year to the day before he was murdered
-- King called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world
From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said,
the U.S. was "on the wrong side of a world revolution." King questioned "our
alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America," and asked why the U.S. was
suppressing revolutions "of the shirtless and barefoot people" in the Third World,
instead of supporting them.
In foreign policy, King also offered an economic critique,
complaining about "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."
You haven't heard the "Beyond Vietnam" speech on network
news retrospectives, but national media heard it loud and clear back in 1967
-- and loudly denounced it. Time magazine called it "demagogic slander that sounded
like a script for Radio Hanoi." The Washington Post patronized that "King has
diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."
In his last months, King was organizing the most militant
project of his life: the Poor People's Campaign. He crisscrossed the country
to assemble "a multiracial army of the poor" that would descend on Washington
-- engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be -- until
Congress enacted a poor people's bill of rights. Reader's Digest warned of an
King's economic bill of rights called for massive government
jobs programs to rebuild America's cities. He saw a crying need to confront a
Congress that had demonstrated its "hostility to the poor" -- appropriating "military
funds with alacrity and generosity," but providing "poverty funds with miserliness."
How familiar that sounds today, more than a quarter-century
after King's efforts on behalf of the poor people's mobilization were cut short
by an assassin's bullet.
As 1995 gets underway, in this nation of immense wealth,
the White House and Congress continue to accept the perpetuation of poverty.
And so do most mass media. Perhaps it's no surprise that they tell us little
about the last years of Martin Luther King's life.
*This article was published as part of shunpiking's
Black History Supplement in February/March 1999, and originally written in 1995.
Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon are syndicated columnists and authors of Adventures
in Medialand: Behind the News, Beyond the Pundits (Common Courage Press).
Marching to the Beat of an Indifferent Drum (April 15,
Honoring King While Clouding His Legacy (April 2, 1998)