Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his now-famous "Beyond Vietnam" speech at the Riverside Church 46 years ago on April 4, 1967. A year later to the day of his Riverside address, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
While The Riverside Church yearly commemorates the speech, last week's commemoration was special and important because it fell on a Thursday, the same day of the week that Dr. King was assassinated. The program was titled: "Honoring the Radical MLK."
The incarcerated radio journalist and world-famous prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, prepared this special statement. An edited version was published in the official program of The Riverside Church event.
I come today to praise Dr. Martin Luther King not to berate him, 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. It is worthy for us to recall that the highest levels of government taped Dr. 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, 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?
You, of all people, the congregation at The Riverside Church should know best, for it was here at Riverside's historic pulpit that Dr. King spake the words that, in FBI parlance made him a "marked" man. Here 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, there 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, follower of a poor Jewish carpenter, the worship of wealth amidst immense poverty in America deeply troubled him.
This is why the Reverend was marked by the state as "dangerous," a socialist, and a radical. This is why his fair-weather friends departed him and denounced him in his greatest hour of need. Martin Luther 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 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 principled impulses and for his words he breathed his last, one-year-to-the-day of his Riverside address.
As we gather to remember Martin Luther 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 Martin Luther 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, we remember him as he was, not as he has since become.
I thank you all.
From Imprisoned Nation this is,
Thursday, April 4, 2013