The historic national monument honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was unveiled this week in Washington. Reflecting on the history that led up to this occasion, GOP freshman Rep. Allen West (FL) — the only Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus — offered his thoughts on the seminal civil rights leader’s legacy to the National Journal. When asked whether King has “informed decisions in your career or personal life,” West painted Dr. King as if he were a conservative icon:
Dr. King’s message is and always shall be relevant. It is about individual responsibility and accountability to seek the highest good in your life … as a nation seeks its highest good. America can only be as great as the sum of its parts, all parts.
I think that, if Dr. King were to come back and see what has become of the black community, he would be appalled: The exorbitantly high unemployment rate, the second- and third-generation welfare families, the rampant decimation of the inner-city black communities, the incarceration rate of young black men, and the breakdown of the black family would all bring a tear to his eye.
Indeed, King might weep at the current, socio-economic decimation of American black communities. But it is not for failing to follow what West offers as King’s conservative message, one of “individual responsibility and accountability.” Indeed, King’s own words, inscribed in the memorial, rebuke the idea of individualism — “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” — for one an undeniably progressive view of an ideal world — “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies; education and culture for their minds; and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”
These progressive values are not merely enshrined in his words but explicitly espoused, pursued, and defended in every action he took, up to his very last:
- King Died Supporting A Public Sector Union’s Strike: In King’s final sermon, he called upon the people of Memphis to join together in support of the Memphis sanitation worker’s AFSCME-led strike. “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” King preached. “when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there.”
- King Compared Poverty To “Cannibalism” And Called For It’s “Direct And Immediate Abolition”: King believed that poverty “is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization.” He called for America to abolish poverty by guaranteeing “white and Negro alike” a minimum income.
- King Called War Funding A “Demonic Sucking Tube” Undermining Poverty Programs: King opposed the Vietnam war in no small part because it diverted precious resources away from anti-poverty programs. “A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. . . . Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”
- King Said Poverty Made Him “Question The Capitalistic Economy”: King called for a radical restructuring of America’s economic system. “And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. . . . You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?’”
As Princeton University Prof. Cornel West noted today, King dedicated his life to fighting four catastrophes he identified: Militarism, materialism, racism, and poverty. By twisting his legacy into one that somehow justifies policies that make these catastrophes worse, West and his colleagues risk trampling on the very message West seeks to commemorate:
The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the moment with credible claims about government corruption and ridiculous claims about tax cuts’ stimulating growth. This right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King’s four catastrophes; its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most Americans.