Southern Dreams

Part II

At the end of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing a “massive coalition” of all people and races suffering under a dysfunctional capitalism to gather in the fall of 1968 in an encampment  of moral suasion built of tents and plywood  for tens of thousands in Washington for a Poor Peoples Campaign. Its purpose was to rip the veil of invisibility from the face of poverty and to organize the poor, all of ‘em,  to influence the national conversation of the way things ought to be. “Resurrection Cities” were planned nationwide. Outbreaks of creative, massive nonviolence was envisioned for public buildings, the streets and places of the mighty.

© 2009 Boyd Lewis

Dr. King’s last great work was to be a nonviolent revolution, a peaceful confrontation to demand that policy makers and power brokers pay attention to the wholesale human suffering going on from Appalachia to Watts.

Then Memphis intervened. The conditions faced by striking sanitation workers in The Bluff City were so vile, so death-bringing, exploitive to the extent of resembling a slave past, that Dr. King took a detour. Memphis was waging economic warfare on its poorest citizens. He had no choice but to go to Memphis. This intervention cost him his life. His concern about economic injustice killed him, not the search for racial peace we see chiseled and embodied and made monumentally official in the D.C. Memorial.

After Dr. King witnessed the sprawling slums of Chicago and conditions creating them  in 1966, he said at a recorded SCLC staff meeting in Atlanta: “Maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” This was where the man’s real dream was going in his final years on earth.  Not all who worked with him at SCLC would disagree.

In 1967, Dr. King told the SCLC national convention that the Movement must shift gears to address the restructuring the whole of American society and its economic system in order to bring a broader and more fair distribution of wealth. Capitalism itself, he told the rights fighters, had to come under critical questioning.

“Capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, encouraging a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition.”

In January 1968, he decried the injustice of a system where “Hundreds of thousands of Negroes are working full time jobs at part-time wages.”

In February 1968 he called for a policy for the redistribution of economic power. “The roots of economic injustice,” he said, “are in the system (capitalism) itself.”

I will be very surprised if any of this made it past the program committee of the King Memorial.

During 1967, the U.S. went through 75 major riots resulting in 83 deaths. The Kerner Commission appointed by Congress found, not surprisingly, that hopelessness brought about by poverty, aimless youth without a chance for a job, and police misconduct were the dominant cause of the longest of the Long Hot Summers. These were not thugs or vandalizing criminals. There was a clear stimulus and riots were the response of the hopeless class. Desperate times call for desperate measures, we’re told.

The late ’60s urban unrest and militancy then overtaking young people had forced Dr. King to readjust his definition of nonviolence, long a central value of the Movement. Under King’s new concept, the tactic was to morph into a more muscular method of fighting, nonviolently of course.

Today nonviolence is equated with passive resistance, folding yourself into a ball to avoids the boots and bats of the racist mob. Not fighting back. Turn the other cheek to be bloodied in its turn.

But in his last year, Dr. King said: “The nonviolent approach can exist only in the context of justice…to remain nonviolent in the face of submission to injustice is a suicidal course.”

Dr. King called for a new direction: aggressive nonviolence to combat injustice and what came to be called “massive resistance.” Dr. King said the tactic must now develop a “disruptive dimension” if it was to be effective; blocking the doorways of state and federal buildings as nonviolence, stopping the car, turning off the engine, locking it in the nation’s busiest streets then walking away as nonviolence. This was new. And there was nothing dreamy about it.

Otherwise, he told audiences, the cries of the poor would not be heeded. Then the fire really would come next time, as the Bible and James Baldwin had predicted.

Martin King  is often depicted as an American emblem complete with flags and eagles. But he was no blind patriot. His opposition to expensive, murderous wars of choice overseas  broke out into the open April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his murder. with a speech to Riverside Church in New York. He was the first major civil rights leader to oppose the Vietnam War, earning him the condemnation of the NAACP, Urban League,  National Baptist Convention and many unions of the AFL-CIO.  Linking an end to the war to civil rights progress was controversial even within SCLC.

Quotes not likely to be recalled the last Sunday in August:

“The (Vietnam)war is the enemy of the poor.”
“And I am sad to say the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit (in the war)
“We are criminals in this war.”
And most famously: “America is the greater purveyor of violence in the world today.”

In some future time, all of this will be forgotten as generations of children flock to the King Memorial on the Reflecting Pool in Washington,  cross their arms across an imagined suit and look sternly into the middle distance and take turns chortling to one another “I Have a Dream.”

So tend to your dreams, children. You must move forward and upward until your dreams of achieving something better become real.  Confront when you have to. Boldly insist on the ideal of justice and fair play. Be sure you’re right and press on. But don’t stop. The dream is but the child of action and you are a child of God. Just like Martin. Don’t turn into blocks of dreaming stone.


Boyd Lewis

Boyd Lewis

New Orleans family. War baby. Family moved a lot. Secondary and college education in Memphis, TN. Just before 1967 graduation, commissioning and tour of leafy, lovely Vietnam, banged up in auto accident. Decided to go into journalism. Tennessee mountain weekly, small Mississippi daily and nearly three decades in Atlanta. Black and alternative newspapers, freelance photojournalist, public radio news and documentary producer, news writer for CNN. Married Deborah James, followed her to Los Angeles for job. Quit the dismal trade and became middle school English teacher in LA barrio school. Quite happy.

  1. Lee Leslie

    Wonderful piece, Boyd. Your unique perspective gives context to the dedication this week that might have otherwise been lost. What might have come from a Poor Peoples Campaign and lost after 1968, we need so terribly now. I have vivid memory of a conversation that I had in 1972 with the publisher of SC’s largest black newspaper. It was a candid conversation – mostly a teachable moment for a young, naive, wannabe liberal, white boy holding a draft lottery ticket of 120. I made a statement that in hindsight, must have sounded patronizing about civil rights and equality. There was a long dramatic pause, then man said to me (paraphrased from dubious memory) in an unmistakable tone of personal conviction, “Lee, black people don’t care about living in your neighborhood or going to your country club… We just want to be able to make money. Let us work. Let us get good educations. Let us create our own wealth. When we have money, white people will treat us as equals and want to be our friends… so they can sell us stuff.”

    1. Yes, but who knew that access to money was going to be so easy to deny? And who knew how many people need to be superior and special to make up for the insecurity that may well have been beaten into them at a young age?
      Wonderful essay, but I have to quibble with the last sentence. People don’t turn into stone on their own. Terrorized long enough, they get petrified. That’s why somebody has to intervene.

  2. Brace yourself for a load of what Hal Gulliver called “Bushwah” this weekend. They will try to freeze out the truly radical and humanistic ideas Dr. King had about our unfettered capitalistic system out and carve in the stern dreamer, immobile, monumental, going absolutely-frickin-nowhere to challenge the rich and those in power. I’m optimistic however. The Aug. 28 dedication of this very beautiful (and very vulnerable) mountain top of American exceptionalism, Martin King, will be a start, not an end. I predict the stone will roll away from the tomb of a moribund Movement and get people to draw inspiration from Dr. King beyond the guardians and profiteers. A new day will dawn for Dr. King, where his ideas about “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?” will be thought about, drempt if you will, then formulated into an action plan to rescue our society from bitter tea brewed by the witches and feral wealthy.

  3. Jeff Cochran

    Boyd, the King statement regarding America as the purveyor of violence certainly rubbed millions of Americans the wrong way. However, it would do them well to watch footage of U.S. bombing in Vietnam. One would hope it would hit home with them, but they turn the other way. Great article.

    1. Much appreciated. Tell one and all the honest to God Martin is coming back. The stone has been rolled away.

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