In an essay published earlier this year by Counterpunch, Jason Hirthler noted ways that “progress” in the United States under President Barack Obama resembles the progress Nelson Mandela achieved in South Africa with the end of apartheid.
“Enfranchised blacks in dire straits, with no political party representing their interests. A well-tanned imperial elite doing fabulously well. The government doing little to help the poor, but plenty to enable the rich. And when the complicit politicians and court journalists get a free minute, they step forward with poetic odes to another fallen champion of the underclass—even as they quietly celebrate the renewal of mass delusion and the injustice of the status quo.”
Hirthler sees a consistent dynamic at work: “As society steps forward socially, it steps backward economically. . . . The social gains made by the majestic courage of millions (are) balanced by a backdoor betrayal of their economic interests.”
Of course, this trade-off isn’t an immutable law of nature; a society can move forward both socially and economically. Martin Luther King insisted this was possible and his public agitation and advocacy encompassed racial equality, economic justice and an end to militarism.
Nevertheless, contemporary political and economic leaders insist on the trade-off. Writing in response to Hirthler at Empire Burlesque, Chris Floyd put it this way:
“In our day, social progress is a tool used deliberately by our leaders to extract more gains for the elite at the expense of the general public. Vast amounts of energy and attention, especially potentially dangerous progressive and/or populist energy, (are) expended on social gains — on winning them, opposing them, maintaining them, trying to reverse them, etc. — while the overall system of domination rolls on unopposed.”
As we mark King’s 85th birthday, we hear again of his remarkable commitment to forgiveness, nonviolence and diversity. It all fits neatly into the cynical game our leaders play, just as it fits the story of King’s death at the hand of an embittered and racist assassin.
But there is another King who doesn’t fit the script. This other King said:
“The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.”
“Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.”
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”
And of course, this other King was not killed by a lone assassin. He was murdered by agents of the government that honors him today. Those who are not aware of the evidence pointing to government responsibility for King’s execution should take the time to read the accounts of attorney William F. Pepper, who represented the King family in its successful 1999 wrongful death trial against U.S. government agencies, and historian James Douglass, author of The Nonviolent Coming of God and JFK and the Unspeakable.
This way of looking at King, Mandela and Obama together is a sobering reminder of what those seeking holistic justice are up against. It also brings to mind Jesus’ words in Luke 14:31 about counting the cost:
“What king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?”
King had counted the cost and knew he was willing to pay it. That was his decisive difference. As he said the night before he died:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. 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!
“And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”