National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly

Archives  | 

Send This Page to a Friend

 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

January 19, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 183




Tom Fox The last years of Martin Luther King

By Tom Fox, NCR publisher

Today is a special day as we commemorate the life and vision of Martin Luther King Jr.

As the years pass the nation views King as both a slain civil rights leader and as a preacher of nonviolence. Seldom, however, do we remember King for the blistering critiques of U.S. policies, both domestic and foreign, which evolved in the years before his death.

Thus, the most frequent images we view show King as battling desegregation in Birmingham (1963); reciting his dream of racial harmony at the rally in Washington (1963); marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama (1965), and finally, lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis (1968).

Other Today's Takes by Tom Fox
Nov. 21, 2003 The readers speak
Nov. 20, 2003 (un)Holy Matrimony
Nov. 19, 2003 Talking about celibacy
Nov. 18, 2003 Why bishops won't talk about celibacy
Oct. 10, 2003 Why Catholics are jittery
Sept. 26, 2003 Priest of the poor
Sept. 25, 2003 A revolution deferred: sex and the church Part II
Sept. 24, 2003 Sex and the mission of the church
But what about the period between 1965 and 1968? Those speeches were filmed or taped as well. But they seldom get shown on TV today.

Why is this? Part of the answer seems to rest in the fact that in the early 1960s when King focused his challenges on legalized discrimination, the media and the nation's political powers were with him. But they left him as he became a more radical critique of U.S. policies.

In the years before his death he developed more of a "class" critique, decrying the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and calling for "radical changes in the structure of our society" to redistribute wealth and power.

By 1967, King had also become the nation's most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War. Some decades-long King supporters now argue that he came to his fullness late in his human rights crusade. They point to his "Beyond Vietnam" speech, delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 -- a year to the day before he was murdered -- as his most piercing critique of a nation then already adrift from its founding principles.

In that speech 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." He questioned "our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America," and asked why the United States was suppressing revolutions "of the shirtless and barefoot people" in the Third World, instead of supporting them.

In foreign policy, King also offered an economic critique, complaining about "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."

That speech, according to FAIR, the national media watch group, was loudly denounced by the media. Time magazine called it "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." The Washington Post said that "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people."

King spent the final months of his life 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 -- engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be -- until Congress enacted a poor people's bill of rights. Reader's Digest warned of an "insurrection."

King's emerging economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America's cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its "hostility to the poor" -- appropriating "military funds with alacrity and generosity" but providing "poverty funds with miserliness."

What King saw in 1967 has an unsettling ring of familiarity today. So we ask: Are we a nation of high principles or have we simply fallen to greed and militarism? Why do repeated public opinion polls overseas find the United States is the number one threat to world peace?

On this day as we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King are we willing to look at ourselves objectively? Are we willing to patriotically criticize our nation as King did? On this day it might be helpful to take a few minutes to read or reread King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech and as we do to rededicate ourselves to the principles for which King lived and died.

PS: Tonight, PBS broadcasts a new documentary, "Citizen King," that focuses on the last five years of King's life. Early reviews indicate it portrays King's larger social and political critique. Consult your local listings.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at

Top of Page   | Home
Copyright © 2003 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280