I come today not to berate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (for though he has become in our modern life perhaps America’s only indigenous saint, it is useful to remember how utterly bedeviled he was in his final years of life, hounded as he was by the forces of the state), but to praise him. It is worthy for us to recall that the highest levels of government taped King’s phone calls, monitored the privacy of his hotel rooms, steamed open his mail and assigned anonymous informants to his every move. What we have forgotten in this era is how the second-highest official in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), one William Sullivan, wrote in a now notorious memo that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was “the most dangerous Negro in America.”
How was he so?
At the Riverside Church’s historic pulpit, King spoke the words that, in FBI parlance, made him a “marked” man. There he called his nation, the United States of America, “the greatest purveyor of violence on earth,” and he condemned “militarism, racism and materialism.”
King felt common cause with the peasants of Vietnam, who were being bombed by the most powerful military in the world. To King, it was something not just unChristian, but unseemly, when the wealthiest nation on earth unleashed an unprecedented level of violence on an industrially underdeveloped, agricultural society such as Vietnam. To King, the follower of a poor Jewish carpenter, the worship of wealth amidst immense poverty in America deeply troubled him.
This is why King was marked by the state as “dangerous,” a socialist and a radical. This is why his fair-weather friends left him and denounced him in his greatest hour of need. King was an adversary of the military industrial complex and the mammoth business interests that support it. This is why, like the crucified Jesus, state power marked him, quashed his voice and gave him up to a violent death.
But King did not oppose war, materialism or racism purely out of ideological motivations. As a man and a child of God, he felt these things cheapened man’s relationship with his fellow man and degraded the divine principle of life itself. He saw the dynamic of men fighting, bombing and killing other men, women and children as the ultimate sacrilege. King felt the pain of Vietnam because he truly believed in a beloved community–one without borders.
For these principles and for his words, he breathed his last breath exactly one year (to the day) after he delivered his Riverside address.
As we gather to remember King, we must ponder what this towering figure would say about the behemoth of modern-day mass incarceration, of stop-and-frisk, of the death penalty, of the bewildering violence of drones and of the continuing hunger for wars abroad in our name.
We know that the true King does not dwell in statues, in ghetto streets bearing his name, or in schools where children are violated daily in buildings erected in his name. His true spirit dwells with the least of these, in communities of the poor worldwide, in ghettoes north and south, and, yes, even in prisons.
In the revolutionary spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we remember him as he was, not as what he has since become.
I thank you all.
From “Imprisoned Nation,” this is Mumia Abu-Jamal