King’s Trumpet of Conscience Must Still Be Heralded
Last summer I happened upon a neat find in a used book store. I found an original edition of Martin Luther King’s posthumously published book The Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper & Row, 1968) – a compilation of five lectures King gave over the Canadian Broadcasting System (CBC) during November and December of 1967, just five months before his assassination (or execution) in Memphis. The CBC had invited King to talk about anything he considered relevant not only in the U.S. but around the world.
The Trumpet of Conscience does not jibe well with the conventional domesticated and whitewashed image of King that is purveyed across the nation ever year during and around the national holiday the bears his name. That image portrays King as a moderate reformer who wanted little more than a few basic civil rights adjustments in a mostly benevolent American System – a loyal supplicant who was tearfully grateful to the nation’s leaders for finally making those adjustments.
The official commemoration says nothing about the Dr. King who studied Marx sympathetically at a young age and who said in his last years that “if we are to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism” . It deletes the King who wrote that the “real issue to be faced” beyond superficial matter was “the radical reconstruction society of society itself.”
In his first talk (“Impasse in Race Relations”), King reflected on how little the black freedom struggle had actually attained beyond some fractional changes in the South. He deplored “the arresting of the limited forward progress” blacks and their allies had attained “by [a] white resistance [that] revealed the latent racism that was [still] deeply rooted in U.S. society.”
“As elation and expectations died,” King explained, “Negroes became more sharply aware that the goal of freedom was still distant and our immediate plight was substantially still an agony of deprivation. In the past decade, little has been done for Northern ghettoes. Al the legislation was to remedy Southern conditions – and even these were only partially improved” (p.6).
Worse than merely limited, the gains won by black Americans during what King considered the “first phase” of their freedom struggle (1955-1965) were dangerous in that they “brought whites a sense of completion” – a preposterous impression that the so-called “Negro problem” had been solved and that there was therefore no more basis or justification for further black activism. “When Negroes assertively moved on to ascend to the second rung of the ladder,” King noted, “a firm resistance from the white community developed….In some quarters it was a courteous rejection, in others it was a singing white backlash. In all quarters unmistakably it was outright resistance” (p.6).
“The White Man Does Not Abide by Law”
Explaining the remarkable wave of race riots that washed across U.S. cities in the summers of 1966 and 1967, King made no apologies for black violence. He blamed “the white power structure…still seeking to keep the walls of segregation and inequality intact” for the disturbances. He found the leading cause of the riots in the reactionary posture of “the white society, unprepared and unwilling to accept radical structural change,” which” produc[ed] chaos” by telling blacks (whose expectations for substantive change had been aroused) “that they must expect to remain permanently unequal and permanently poor” (9-10, emphasis added).
King also blamed the riots in part on Washington’s imperialist and mass-murderous “war in [here he might have better said “on”] Vietnam.” The military aggression against Southeast Asia stole resources from Johnson’s briefly declared and barely fought “War on Poverty.” It sent poor blacks to the front killing lines to a disproportionate degree. It advanced the notion that violence was a reasonable response and even a solution to social and political problems.
Black Americans and others sensed what King called “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 school. 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,” King said in his second CBC lecture, adding that he “could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor” (p. 23).
Racial hypocrisy aside, King said that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense [here he might better have said “military empire”] than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom” (p.33).
Did the rioters disrespect the law, as their liberal and conservative critics alike charged? Yes, King said, but added that the rioters’ transgressions were “derivative crimes…born of the greater crimes of the…policy-makers of the white society,” who “created discrimination…created slums. [and] perpetuate unemployment, ignorance, and poverty….[T]he white man,” King elaborated, “does not abide by law in the ghetto. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provision of public services. The slums are a handiwork of a vicious system of the white society.” (p.8).
Did the rioters engage in violence? Yes, King said in his fourth lecture, but noted that their aggression was “to a startling degree…focused against property rather than against people.” He observed that “property represents the white power structure, which [the rioters] were [understandably] attacking and trying to destroy” (pp. 56-57). Against those who held property “sacred,” King argued that “Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround with rights and respect, it has no personal being”
“The Roots are in the System”
What to do? King advanced significant policy changes that went against the grain of the nation’s corporate state, reflecting his agreement with New Left Radicals that “only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather in man or faulty operations” (p.40). King advocated an emergency national program providing either decent-paying jobs for all or a guaranteed national income “at levels that sustain life in decent circumstances.” He also called tor “demolition of slums and rebuilding by the population that lives in them” (p. 14).
His proposals, he said, aimed for more than racial justice alone. Seeking to abolish poverty for all, including poor whites, he felt that “the Negro revolt” had come to challenge what he called “the interrelated triple evils” of racism, economic injustice/poverty (capitalism) and war (militarism and imperialism). It had “evolve[ed] into more than a quest for desegregation and equality” by becoming “a challenge to a system that has created miracles of production and technology to create justice.”
“If humanism is locked outside the system,” King said in his opening lecture, “Negroes will have revealed its inner core of despotism and a far grater struggle for liberation will unfold. The United States is substantially challenged to demonstrate that it can abolish not only the evils of racism but the scourge of poverty and the horrors of war….” (pp. 16-17, emphasis added).
There should be no doubt that King meant capitalism when he referred to “the system” and its “inner core of despotism.”
“They Must Organize a Revolution…. Against the Privileged Minority of the Earth”
No careful listener to King’s CBC talks could have missed the radicalism of his vision and tactics. “The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both White and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society,” King said in his fourth lecture. “They must organize a revolution against that injustice,” he added (p. 59)..
Such a revolution would require “more then a statement to the larger society,” more than “street marches” King proclaimed. “There must,” he added, “be a force that interrupts [that society’s] functioning at some key point.” That force would use “mass civil disobedience” to “transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force” by “dislocate[ing] the functioning of a society.”
“The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth,” King added for good measure. “The storm will not abate until [there is a] just distribution of the fruits of the earth…” (p. 17). As this reference to the entire earth suggested, the “massive, active, nonviolent resistance to the evils of the modern system” (p. 48) that King advocated was “international in scope,” reflecting the fact that “the poor countries are poor primarily because [rich Western nations] have exploited them through political or economic colonialism. Americans in particular must help their nation repent of her modern economic imperialism” (p. 62).
In the Trumpet of Conscience you read a democratic socialist mass-disobedience world revolution advocate who the guardians of national memory don’t want you know about when they honor the official, doctrinally imposed memory of King.
Regression, Betrayal, and “The Mendacity of Hope”
The threat posed to that official memory by King’s CBC lectures – and by much more that King did and said and write in the last three years of his life – is not just that they show an officially iconic gradualist reformer to have been a radical opponent of the profits system and its empire. It is also about how clearly King analyzed the incomplete and unfinished nature of the nation’s progress against racial and class injustice, around which all forward developments pretty much ceased in the 1970s, thanks to a white backlash that was already well underway in the early and mid-1960s (before the rise of the Black Panthers) and to a top-down corporate war on working class Americans that started under Jimmy Carter and went ballistic under Ronald Reagan.
The “spiritual doom” imposed by militarism has lived on, with Washington having directly and indirectly killed untold millions of Iraqis, Central Americans, South Americans, Africans, Muslims, Arabs, and Asians in many different ways over the years since Vietnam. Accounting for half the world’s obscene military expenditure, the U.S. maintains Cold War-level “defense” (empire) budgets to sustain an historically unmatched global killing machine (which operates from more than 1000 bases located in more than 100 “sovereign” nations) even as the current record-setting number of officially poor Americans remains stuck at 46 million, a very disproportionate number of whom are black and Latino/a.
It is ironic that Barack Obama keeps a bust of King in the White House’s oval office to watch over his regular betrayal of the martyred peace and justice leader’s ideals. Consistent with Dr. Adolph Reed Jr.’s early (1996) dead-on description of the future President as “a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics”, President Obama has consistently backed top corporate and financial interests (whose representatives have filled and dominated his administrations, campaigns, and campaign coffers) over and against those who would undertake serious programs to end poverty, redistribute wealth (the savage re-concentration of which since Dr. King’s time has produced a New Gilded Age in the U.S.), constrain capital, and save livable ecology as it approaches a number of critical tipping points on the accelerating path to irreversible catastrophe. Thus is that one of Obama’s supporters was moved in late 2012 to complain that a president “whose platform consists of Romney’s health care bill, Newt Gingrich’s environmental policies, John McCain’s deficit-financed payroll tax cuts, George W. Bush’s bailouts of filing banks and corporations, and a mixture of the Bush and Clinton tax rate” was still being denounced as a leftist enemy of business by the Republicans.
Obama has opposed calls for any special programs or serious federal attention to the nation’s savage racial inequalities, so vast now that the median of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. He has done this while the fact of his ascendency to the White House has deeply reinforced white America’s sense that racism is over as a barrier to black advancement and has generated its own significant white backlash that only worsens the situation of less privileged black Americans. He has made it clear that what Dr. King called (white) America’s unpaid “promissory note” and “bad check” to black America  will remain un-cashed under his watch – consistent with his preposterous 2007 campaign claim (at a commemoration of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March) to believe that blacks had already come “90 percent” of the way to equality in the U.S.
Completing the “triple evils” hat trick, Obama – he of the of personally approved Special Forces Global War on (of) Terror Kill List – has embraced and expanded upon the vast criminal and worldwide spying and killing operation he inherited from Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Bush. He has tamped down their spent and failed ground wars only to ramp up and inflate the role of unaccountable special force and drone attacks in the spirit of his dashing and reckless imperial role model John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In waging his deadly and disastrous air war on Libya, he did not even bother with the pretense of seeking Congressional approval. Meanwhile he has far outdone the Cheney-Bush regime when it comes to repressing antiwar dissenters, not to mention those who oppose the rule of the 1 percent – smashed by a coordinated federal campaign in the fall of 2011.“As all kinds of journalists have continuously pointed out,” Glenn Greenwald notes, “the Obama administration is more aggressive and more vindictive when it comes to punishing whistleblowers than any administration in American history, including the Nixon administration.” 
“A Calling Beyond National Allegiances”
Thinking of the FTBP’s imperial record, I am reminded of something King said in his second CBC lecture. Explaining why he had turned against the Vietnam War, King noted that “a burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964: I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission – a commission to work harder that I had ever worked before for ‘the brotherhood of man.’ This is a calling which takes me beyond national allegiances …to the making of peace” (p.25).
In answering that call, King stood to the portside of leading U.S. 1960s social democrats like Bayard Rustin, A Phillip Randolph, and Michael Harrington. These and other left leaders (e.g. Max Shachtman and Tom Kahn) were unwilling to forthrightly oppose the US-imperial assault on Indochina because of their misplaced faith in pursuing the fight against poverty in alliance with the pro-war Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO Besides opposing the war on moral grounds, King understood very well that expenses of crushing Vietnam were precluding and cancelling out anti-poverty spending.
A Testament of Radical Hope
Perhaps the Obama experience is at least a lesson on how progressive change is about something much bigger than a change in the party or color of the people in nominal power. That is certainly something King (who would be 85 today) would have thought has been able to witness the endless mendacity of the the nation’s first half-white president first-hand. “The black revolution,” King wrote in a posthumously published 1969 essay titled “A Testament of Hope” – embracing a very different sort of hope than that purveyed by Brand Obama in 2008 – “is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of out society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction society of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”
Those words – words you will not hear via “mainstream” media during the national King Day celebrations– ring as true and urgent as ever today, as it becomes undeniable that the profits system’s inner core of despotism is driving humanity over an environmental cliff and that it has become eco-“socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.”
Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Segregated Schools (Routledge, 2005) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).
1. Marshall Frady, Martin Luther King, Jr, A Life (New York: Penguin, 2002), 25
2. David J.Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council(HarperCollins, 1986), 41-43.
3. See note 12, below.
4. Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 382, 591-92; Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (Free Press, 2000), 87-88.
5. A useful review is William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Common courage Press, 2005). See also Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (South End Press, 1993) and Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (AK Press, 2003),
6. And with my description of Obama’s commitment and career in my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm 2008, written in 2007). See Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000), 10-13.
7. Ezra Klein, “Block Obama!,” New York Review of Books, September 27, 2012, quoted in Perry Anderson, “Homeland,” New Left Review 81 (May-June 2013).
8. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream…” (1963),http://www.archives.gov/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf
9. Paul Street, “The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Meaning of the Black Revolution,” Black Agenda Report(March 20, 2007), http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/pale-reflection-barack-obama-mlk-and-meaning-black-revolution
11. For a detailed and remarkable account, see Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil; Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (New York: Monthly Review, 2013).
12, Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Testament of Hope” (1969) in James Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King. Jr (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 315.