(Originally published January 21, 2020)
The King of the March on Washington is encased in amber, his still-deferred dream reduced to a harmless platitude, its endless repetition a proof of virtue.
But the King who declared from the pulpit of Riverside Church on April 4 th , 1967, that his beloved country had become “the greatest purveyor of violence on earth” cannot be resurrected for the cameras or deployed as a spokesman for American redemption. For that King might wander off the stage into the street, might occupy Wall Street and the Pentagon, or insist on reminding us that “a nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
When he publicly declared his opposition to the Vietnam War in April 1967, King earned few friends in the administration, the press, or even among the civil right establishment. FBI surveillance and harassment was ordered intensified. He was relentlessly attacked from all sides for straying out of his “area” in criticizing the foreign policies of a President who had been so strong a Negro ally. But if King hadn’t made pellucid the undeniable connection between the “giant triplets” of "racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” in his speech at Riverside, he doubled down a few days later at a massive peace rally at United Nations Plaza. “The promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam, making the poor---white and Negro--bear the heaviest burden.”
The Johnson administration’s failure to rate the plight of the nation’s impoverished above the needs of its military-industrial complex compelled King inexorably to his next project: the Poor People’s Campaign. On December 4th, 1967, he announced:
“The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will lead waves of the nation's poor and disinherited to Washington, D. C. next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all.”
King’s plan was nothing less than to occupy Washington with a multi-racial army of the poor. They would not be moved until the nation’s attention and resources were lent to the needs of millions of forgotten Americans. King placed the burden where, in a nominal republic, it lays:
“The President and the Congress have a primary responsibility for low minimum wages, for a degrading system of inadequate welfare, for subsidies of the rich and unemployment and underemployment of the poor, for a war mentality, for slums and starvation, and racism.”
That King’s plan was intolerable to the National Security establishment and the country’s secret police is visible in the manner of his death. On April 4 th , 1968, a year to the day from his speech at Riverside Church condemning the slaughter of women and children in Vietnam, King was gunned down outside his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee.
King’s protection had been withdrawn, his hotel room altered, his organization infiltrated. The crime scene was not sealed, key witnesses were not interviewed, an all-too-convenient bundle of evidence, including a rifle and an unlikely map of King’s itinerary was left in a doorway for easy collection. The alleged shooter was himself eventually collected in England, a shiftless, penniless, escaped convict who somehow possessed a number of expensive false passports. In later years, Attorney Bill Pepper, friend to Dr. King, would bring enough real evidence, eyewitnesses, and confessions into court to flesh out a portrait of the unspeakable: from the highest levels of the United States Government, the same one that King sought to save from itself, came the orders to kill.
Dr. King said, ‘”If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.”’
It is the sad verdict of history to note that America’s soul has been so poisoned, and part of the autopsy must read “Assassination”.
John Kirby is the director of FOUR DIED TRYING, a feature documentary and series on the major assassinations of the 1960’s and their calamitous impact on the country. To join the struggle for justice for Dr. King, Malcolm X, and John and Robert Kennedy, sign the petition.