By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Published by Seattle Times, Jan. 16, 1993
The Martin Luther King Not Seen On TV
It has become a TV ritual each year on Martin Luther King's birthday: the perfunctory network news reports about "the slain civil rights leader."
The remarkable thing about this annual review of King's life is that several years - his last years - are totally missing, as if flushed down a memory hole.
What TV viewers see is a closed loop of familiar file footage: King battling desegregation in Birmingham (1963), reciting his dream of racial harmony at the rally in Washington (1963), marching for voting rights in Selma, Ala. (1965), and finally, lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis (1968).
An alert viewer might notice that the chronology jumps from 1965 to 1968. King didn't take a sabbatical at the end of his life. In fact, he was speaking and organizing as diligently as ever. But those speeches are not shown today on TV.
It's because national news media have never come to terms with what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for during his final years.
In the early 1960s, when King focused his challenge on legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media were his allies - graphically showing the official violence used against Southern blacks who sought the right to vote or to eat at a public lunch counter.
But after passage of civil rights laws in the mid-1960s, King began challenging the nation's fundamental priorities. This was the uppity Martin Luther King scorned by many in the media. Today, instead of providing the full story, network television offers us an edited-for-TV character that Jesse Jackson has dubbed "the harmless dreamer."
The real Martin Luther King spent the last years of his life taking on the Washington establishment. He argued that civil rights laws were insufficient without "human rights" - including economic rights that would guarantee adequate income and health care.
Noting that most Americans below the poverty line were white, King's approach to issues evolved from a racial to a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor and called for "radical changes in the structure of our society" to redistribute wealth and power.
"True compassion," King declared, "is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
By 1967, King had also become the country's most prominent Vietnam War opponent and a staunch critic of "militarism" in U.S. foreign policy. In his "Beyond Vietnam" speech delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 - a year to the day before he was murdered - King called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."
From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said the United States was "on the wrong side of a world revolution." Rather than suppressing revolutions "of the shirtless and barefoot people" in the Third World, King believed the United States should be supporting them.
King also criticized "capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out - with no concern for the social betterment of the countries."
The "Beyond Vietnam" speech (now obscured by mainstream media) enraged news outlets back in 1967. Time magazine called it "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." The Washington Post patronized that "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."
Seeing the Vietnam War siphon billions of tax dollars from U.S. cities and the poor, King sought to link the anti-war and civil rights movements. This rankled the so-called liberal media. The New York Times lectured that Vietnam and racism were "distinct and separate" issues; merging the two did a "disservice to both."
In his last months, King was organizing the most militant project of his life: the Poor People's Campaign. He crisscrossed the country to assemble "a multiracial army of the poor" that would descend on Washington - sitting in at the Capitol, if need be - until Congress enacted a poor-people's bill of rights guaranteeing everyone a job. Reader's Digest warned of an "insurrection."
King's efforts on behalf of poor people were cut short by an assassin's bullet. In the quarter-century since then, the federal government has never committed itself to ending poverty.
It's worth remembering that when King embarked upon the Poor People's Campaign, his main foes were not right-wing Republicans or Southern racists - but a White House and Congress controlled by Democrats.
And a media establishment that found King too uppity.