Hal Draper


On the death of Martin Luther King

KPFA Commentary – April 6, 1968

During the last forty-eight hours or so, on radio and TV and in the newspapers, I have heard and read more flowery tributes to Martin Luther King’s peacefulness than my stomach can take. You can be sure that this is not going to be another one.

All of the white racists who head our national government and state government and local government – all of these white racists of various degrees of virulency are in a veritable sweat of guilt and fear, which takes the rhetorical form of pretty phrases full of love and God and charity, and especially invocations to be peaceful, and to weep a little, and to gnash a tooth or two, and pray a forgiving prayer; and then, having salved one’s fearful conscience, go back to sleep in the comfortable feeling that one has done one’s duty.

The New York Stock Exchange stops for one minute, sixty whole seconds, while the hardfaced men who manipulate the financial power of the nation take a breather from the same economic policies that condemn more blacks to living misery than ever killed men in Memphis.

In Washington, Lyndon B. Johnson – the new Lyndon Johnson, the one with the saintly halo around his head because he withdrew from the presidential race after having found out he would be wiped up anyway – this Johnson makes proclamation after proclamation invoking King’s faith in nonviolence, in order to keep the black people from action, and then, as the sweet echoes of his talk about nonviolence die away, he calls thousands of troops into Washington to stand by nonviolently with machine guns on the Capitol steps and with grenades and gas and guns around the White House. You know how nonviolent our president is, all over the world!

In Washington, this same Johnson calls a hurried Uncle Tom conference – of Tom Wilkins of the NAACP, and Tom Young of the Urban League, and Tom Bayard Rustin – to advise him on how to keep their black brothers nice and quiet and peaceful, on how to get them to hold still. And weren’t you just carried away when you read in the paper this Saturday morning what Bayard Rustin had to say on this? Rustin “said that the President had stated the problem clearly and urged that something be done to give the poor a reasonable hope that their condition will be relieved in the ‘short range.’” How statesmanlike that is! “Something should be done,” says this great black leader, rolling the marbles around in his mouth. “Give the poor slobs at least a reasonable hope,” says this great black leader. I’m carried away.

But I was talking about the white racists. Let’s take one. Don’t be shocked, dear listener, because I’m going to start with Mayor Alioto of San Francisco. I’m starting with him – and not with Governor Connally of Texas, who is the closest personal friend that President Johnson has, and who came as close to chortling in public over King’s death as any sane politician ever could. I’m starting with Alioto because, you see, you already know that Connally is a racist, and you probably think that Alioto is a humane liberal.

Now take a look at the official proclamation issued by Alioto, which is on the front page this Saturday morning in big type, and read it carefully. It is full of the deepest sorrow over King’s assassination; and I am quite willing to agree that most of the white racists over the country do regret that King was assassinated. (As Dick Gregory said, in one of the few statements I’ve seen that cheered me up: “I think,” he said, “that white folks will be missing him more than blacks. He led more whites than blacks.” Yes indeed, most of our white racists are sincerely grief-stricken that King was killed, because they are scared to death that his assassination will tend to move more militant leaders in to fill the vacuum of black leadership. Their tears are real, and they have a right to weep.

And so the heavy sighs in Mayor Alioto’s proclamation are sincere and genuine. But if you read this proclamation a second time, you may notice what is remarkably missing in it: the subject about which there is not one word, not one syllable, not a breath. And that is the slightest reference to who King was, what he fought for, what he wanted, why he was killed – the slightest syllable, in other words, about civil rights, or the black struggle, or even what is called the “Negro problem,” or anything like that.

Dr. King, proclaims Alioto, “dedicated his work to nonviolence.” And that’s all he says. Alioto is a liar. King dedicated his work to righting the wrongs of the black people, in his own way; and about this there is not a syllable in Alioto’s proclamation.

You may say: That doesn’t mean he’s a racist; he just doesn’t want to offend racist voters. To this I answer: Oh, so that’s the difference between a liberal and a racist! Now I know.

In another statement, Alioto said that King was a leader “who operated within the law” and so on. But Alioto is either ignorant or a hypocritical liar again, because he must know that in that last speech King made before he was killed, he was calling on the black people of Memphis to violate the injunction that the racist judges had granted against the unionists on strike. He was calling on them to violate the “law and order” of the strikebreakers on the bench. And after all, in his own way, King had been an apostle of civil disobedience, which means deliberate and conscientious violation of those laws that kill the soul. I don’t think Alioto was ignorant of this; I think he’s a liar.

In his proclamation, Alioto proclaimed this bit of rhetoric about King: “He wished no man harm.” You see what a nice, harmless goody-goody King was – just the kind of goody-goody to hold up as an example to militant blacks who, by god, do wish somebody harm. But Alioto is a liar here too. It doesn’t really matter how King thought of it, but every really useful thing that King ever did meant doing somebody harm – harm to the white racists whom he was trying to fight, in his own way.

And when Alioto can issue a pious proclamation in which not a syllable is said about King’s struggle for his people’s rights, for which he was killed, and which is filled with these sickly lies about “wishing no man harm,” then I tell you that this good humane liberal Alioto issued that proclamation from the depths of a white racist soul. Excuse me, I mean the depths of his liberal white racist soul.

Let’s take another white racist. No, not one of those Southern senators who refused to take part even in the mummery of the Senate’s business of passing a resolution of sorrow – no, that would be too easy. I take one that’s a little harder for you to swallow – the case of Robert Kennedy.

What, Kennedy – the man who put a whole chartered airplane at the disposal of the family to carry King’s coffin from Memphis to Atlanta! Yes, that was a thoughtful gesture – for as a gesture it did take thought, you can be sure – and all it cost him was money, of which he has more than certain other attributes. But when he had put his checkbook back in his pocket, and issued a statement to express his genuine sorrow, what was it that came out?

He said, “It is not a day for politics.” That’s hogwash: it is a day for politics – for using (yes, using) the emotional dynamism of a shocked nation not for pious puling platitudes, but for the politics of the black people’s struggle. And the people who will tell you to “keep politics out of this” are the people who are afraid of the politics that would result as soon as they could no longer succeed in keeping the victims quiet.

And in the same tenor Kennedy said in his statement: “No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders.” Listen to that: it is an outright lie, and Kennedy knows it is as well as you. He issues this lie, not because there is a vestige of truth in it, but because he is as afraid as other liberal white racists of his stripe precisely that what he calls civil disorders’’ may indeed start righting some of the wrongs about which he has done little or nothing.

Oh these nice guilt-ridden liberals who are searching for some way to expiate their guilt: how ingenious they are! There’s this leader of the San Francisco Democratic Club, Richard Morris, who gets on TV with his heartwarming proposal for a memorial to King: namely, to rename the Bay Bridge after him. Forgive me, dear listener, for being cynical, because you and I know that this Morris (whoever he is) undoubtedly is a nice sincere liberal with his heart in the right place. But you know what strikes me first about this heartwarming proposal? It is: how cheap it is. I mean cheap – inexpensive – doesn’t cost a thing. Just like Alioto’s proclamation.

He doesn’t ask that the people in the Western Addition be given their legitimate demands by the city administration, which is fighting them tooth and nail – no, that would cost something, you know. He doesn’t get the bright idea that the city should pass a Martin Luther King memorial ordinance, for example, absolutely and finally outlawing every vestige of discrimination in hiring practices by employers and unions, and setting up a real enforcement agency to ram it down their teeth. No, that would cost something. So come on, people, at least rename the Bay Bridge, will you please, and maybe a couple of schools and a street or two, and then let everything go on as before, while those nice sincere white liberals congratulate themselves on how they have done honor to Martin Luther King’s peacefulness and kept the black people quiet into the bargain. What a bargain!

I am not going to tell you that the answer to King’s fixation with nonviolence is an opposite fixation with violence. No, it isn’t. To be sure, it was pretty stupid of Carlton Goodlett, in his speech on Friday outside City Hall, to answer a young militant in the crowd by quoting the Bible, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” King lived by the olive branch and died by the bullet; and that proves nothing one way or the other, except that blacks who preach about “living by the sword” can be just as empty as white liberals.

No, I have a couple of different memorials to propose to the memory of Martin Luther King. If the local guilt-ridden liberals want to salve their consciences, let them draw up a model Martin Luther King program for a city, and demand that Alioto and the city government vote it in right now, instead of going into mourning. Let them call a mass meeting before City Hall not to listen to tearful invocations but to camp on the steps and surround the council chambers until that program is passed. And if those guilty liberals won’t do this, as I expect, then let some black leaders who know what they want organize the people of Hunters Point and the Fillmore and the Oakland ghetto to go to those city halls instead, together with their white allies of the Peace and Freedom Party and their friends, to do what the mourners won’t do.

That on the city scale. The thing to do in Washington is not to keep on burning buildings or looting stores: that may work off some steam, but look, I don’t think they ought to work off steam; they ought to put it to use. What Washington needs is a March on Washington that is not led by Bayard Rustin – keep that Uncle Tom as far away as possible; a March on Washington that will demand not just the immediate passage of this miserable civil rights bill that’s pending, and which may be used as a sop, but a civil-rights program to enact into law all the proposals that Martin Luther King asked for... a March on Washington that would camp on the steps of the Capitol and the White House until such a program was passed, or until Johnson gets the nerve up to give orders to use that nonviolent machine gun that he planted on the Capitol steps yesterday.

You want another memorial to Martin Luther King? I’d like to see the black movement organize, this week, a conference right in Memphis of teams of organizers sent by every black and militant white organization and movement in the country, who will pledge to stay in Memphis indefinitely until that sinkhole of racism is redone over from cellar to skyscraper, organizing the black people and labor both black and white against the power structure there, with the objective of making Memphis either a model city in the South or a heap of ruins. And either one would be a monument.

So don’t mourn for Martin Luther King; don’t drop a tear; make them weep, not you. As a mild starter, you can at least join the march which the Peace and Freedom Party is initiating... Are you going to be there, or are you going to listen to your TV memorials as they sing Negro spirituals?



Last updated: 26.9.2004