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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

MLK Day 2007

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When Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous April 4, 1967 speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, he threw down the gauntlet against the Vietnam War and the imperialist policies that spawned it. The United States, King said, is "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." From Southeast Asia to South Africa, the U.S. was "on the wrong side of a world revolution." King denounced U.S. foreign policy for suppressing the world's "shirtless and barefoot people," instead of supporting them in their struggle for social justice.

Time magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." The Washington Post warned "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

Today, when we see rightwingers from Newt Gingrich to Dick Cheney, from primped Fox News commentators to George W. Bush, shedding tears and engaging in lachrymose testaments to the "vision" and "the dream" of Martin Luther King, Jr. we should try to imagine what these people would be saying about King's statements and organizing activities in the years leading up to his assassination.

In August 1965, in the wake of the Watts riot, King toured the damaged streets of South Central Los Angeles, and was met with hostility from L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty. Yorty, a right-wing Democrat, dismissed King's charges of police brutality as "ridiculous," and rejected his proposal for a civilian review board to oversee the L.A.P.D. King left the city frustrated, saying that the white leadership of Los Angeles displayed "a blind intransigence and ignorance of the tremendous social forces which are at work here."

In November 1967, King threw himself into organizing a massive march of poor people on the nation's capital aimed to broaden the civil rights movement, and bring about a class coalition that crossed racial lines. He believed by building bridges to the white poor and working-class, the movement might gain greater political strength in an election year, and give greater visibility to the issue of poverty. He said the protest march would be "a Selma-like movement on economic issues," referring to the demonstrations in Alabama that helped win passage of the Voting Rights Act. King called for new federal programs that "go beyond race and deal with economic inequality, wherever it exists." He hoped that the white poor could be engaged in the struggle, and forge a "powerful new alliance."

With the Poor People's Campaign, King said he wished to "transmute the rage of the ghetto into a positive constructive force." There must be "a radical re-ordering of priorities," he explained, including "a de-escalation and final stopping of the war in Vietnam, and an escalation of the war against poverty and racism here at home." He sought the help of the anti-war movement in making the Poor People's Campaign a success, by linking poverty with the waste of resources on the war. He promised to bring a core group of "about 3,000 people to Washington," including the entire impoverished hamlet of Marks, Mississippi.

The poor people and their allies planned to occupy the public spaces of Washington for "at least sixty days, or however long we feel it necessary," King promised. He hoped it would be reminiscent of the 1963 March on Washington. He said the campaign would culminate on June 15, 1968 in a massive rally. "We want to provide an opportunity once more for thousands, hundreds of thousands of people to come to Washington," he said. "We hope that all of our friends will go out of their way to make that a big day, indeed the largest march that has ever taken place in the city of Washington."

The Poor People's Campaign was not only a bold attempt to unite the Northern and Southern black rights movements, but King had said explicitly on several occasions that forging a class-based movement was his ultimate goal. It was an enormous gamble, and the movement suffered some serious setbacks, but King believed that a new class coalition was the next, and possibly only, logical step left for the maturing civil rights movement of the late 1960s. King called for a $30 billion a year "domestic Marshall Plan" to end poverty in America.

The hollow tributes to King's legacy we will hear today by the enemies of everything King stood for must be tempered by a clear reading of the historical record.