MLK Called for a “Radical Revolution of Values.” The Movement for Black Lives Delivers One.

50 years ago today, King blasted militarism, racism and poverty in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The new Beyond the Moment campaign carries forward his radical vision.

Barbara Ransby April 4, 2017

Striking sanitation workers in Memphis carried signs reading, “I Am a Man.” This was the Black Lives Matter declaration of 1968.

April 4 marks the 50th anniver­sary of Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s his­toric 1967 Beyond Viet­nam” speech. At a gath­er­ing in New York’s River­side Church con­vened by the anti­war group Cler­gy and Laity Con­cerned About Viet­nam, he con­demned war, U.S. impe­ri­al­ism, mate­ri­al­ism, racism and the excess­es of cap­i­tal­ism. Exact­ly one year lat­er, King was assas­si­nat­ed on a bal­cony of the Lor­raine Motel in Mem­phis, Tennessee.

Emboldened to resist what he termed the triple evils of militarism, racism and poverty, King in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech offers a lesson for our own time.

Dur­ing the final year of his life, King was at his most rad­i­cal in his pol­i­tics and the most sweep­ing in his analy­sis. Embold­ened to resist what he termed the triple evils of mil­i­tarism, racism and pover­ty, King in his Beyond Viet­nam” speech offers a les­son for our own time. It is rich with provoca­tive and rel­e­vant mes­sages for the racial jus­tice and eco­nom­ic jus­tice move­ments, and the inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty work they require. Take, for exam­ple, his insis­tence that we wage a war on pover­ty rather than invest more human and finan­cial resources in mil­i­tary aggres­sion abroad. What demand could be more time­ly, give the promise by the 45th pres­i­dent to siphon an addi­tion­al $54 bil­lion dol­lars from pub­lic funds to fur­ther engorge the Pen­ta­gon budget?

In the speech, King under­scored the fierce urgency of now,” and the need for this coun­try to embrace a rad­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion of val­ues.” That rev­o­lu­tion, of course, has yet to come, and its urgency has only increased. But King’s vision is resur­gent in the coali­tion of Black-led orga­ni­za­tions known as the Move­ment for Black Lives (MBL). Fit­ting­ly, on April 4, MBL, and dozens of allied orga­ni­za­tions, is launch­ing the Beyond the Moment cam­paign, which takes its name from King’s speech. It will kick off with mas­sive polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion events and a call for May Day demon­stra­tions along­side labor, immi­gra­tion and cli­mate activists.

The MBL Vision for Black Lives” plat­form issued in August 2016 spells out what King’s rad­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion of val­ues” might look like. The plat­form echoes King’s vision — in its demands for health­care, hous­ing and jobs and its cri­tique of a sys­tem that place(s) prof­it over peo­ple.” Two piv­otal strug­gles were at the heart of King’s work dur­ing his final year: the Poor People’s Cam­paign and the Mem­phis san­i­ta­tion work­ers’ strike.

Influ­enced by a net­work of advi­sors and lov­ing crit­ics, by 1968 King had come see the impor­tance of fore­ground­ing eco­nom­ic jus­tice as a crit­i­cal part of the fight for racial jus­tice. Until his assas­si­na­tion on April 4, 1968, King and his allies worked to craft the his­toric Poor People’s Cam­paign. Fol­low­ing King’s death, the cam­paign cul­mi­nat­ed in a car­a­van of impov­er­ished Amer­i­cans march­ing to a sym­bol­ic encamp­ment on the Nation­al Mall in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., called Res­ur­rec­tion City, which last­ed from May 12 to June 24, 1968 and drew thou­sands of peo­ple. Unlike Occu­py Wall Street which focused on the obscene con­cen­tra­tion of wealth in the hands of the top 1%, the Poor People’s Cam­paign focused on the bot­tom 1%: the poor, the unem­ployed, the hun­gry and the homeless.

Theirs was the suf­fer­ing that had to occu­py our polit­i­cal con­scious­ness. And it was the Mem­phis San­i­ta­tion Work­ers Strike, which began on Feb. l2, 1968, that helped bring it to the forefront.

The names of Echol Cole and Robert Walk­er are not well-known today. They were two black san­i­ta­tion work­ers, ages 30 and 36, in Mem­phis, Tenn., who were crushed on Feb­ru­ary 1, in the back of a raggedy garbage truck. Their grue­some deaths were reminders of the deval­u­a­tion of black life at the time and trig­gered a city­wide strike that brought King and oth­er sup­port­ers to Mem­phis that spring. That strike became piv­otal strug­gle that bridged the labor and the Civ­il Rights movements.

Garbage work­ers were dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black and so poor­ly paid that many had to rely on wel­fare and food stamps to make ends meet. Work­ers were treat­ed abysmal­ly and labored under unsafe and inhu­mane con­di­tions. Their labor mat­tered but their lives did not. Cole’s and Walker’s death’s were the last straw. Even though Hen­ry Loeb, the city’s racist may­or, had refused to rec­og­nize the san­i­ta­tion work­ers’ right to orga­nize, 12 days lat­er the work­ers went on strike. Strik­ers car­ried signs read­ing, I Am a Man.” This was the Black Lives Mat­ter dec­la­ra­tion of 1968. Cole and Walk­er were fathers, work­ers, neigh­bors, sons and broth­ers. They were men, not garbage.

Black work­ers of Mem­phis took to the streets. They were joined by civ­il rights activists, white sup­port­ers, and high school and col­lege stu­dents, who walked out of class­es to join the protests. The march­es were loud and angry; in some cas­es, win­dows were bro­ken and stores were loot­ed. The vio­la­tion of prop­er­ty was met with vio­lence by the local cops. In the course of the upris­ing, a 16-year-old black youth, Lar­ry Payne, was shot and killed by a Mem­phis police offi­cer. Dr. King called the boy’s moth­er, Lizzie Payne, to express his con­do­lences for her son’s mur­der at the hands of the state.

King’s voice and activ­i­ty in that final year of his life threat­ened the sta­tus quo like nev­er before. He lost many main­stream sup­port­ers who sharply crit­i­cized him for over­step­ping his role as a negro leader.” Today, in King’s foot­steps are those who are delib­er­ate­ly over­step­ping a nar­row def­i­n­i­tion of Black pol­i­tics to forge a new and vibrant unit­ed move­ment that builds upon and tran­scends the foun­da­tion laid by King, Ella Bak­er, Fan­nie Lou Hamer and others.

The Move­ment for Black Lives cen­ters on those at the bot­tom of the social and eco­nom­ic hier­ar­chy and rejects the pol­i­tics of black respectabil­i­ty — a pol­i­tics that his­tor­i­cal­ly has focused on the so-called best and bright­est.” In speech­es, cam­paigns and the major pol­i­cy doc­u­ments issued by MBL, and con­stituent orga­ni­za­tions like Black Lives Mat­ter Glob­al Net­work and BYP100 (Black Youth Project 100), the empha­sis is on low-wage work­ers, those incar­cer­at­ed or for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed, and LGBTQIA sur­vivors of state and vig­i­lante vio­lence. Both BYP100 and more recent­ly, MBL have teamed up with the Fight for 15 to fur­ther the strug­gle to raise the min­i­mum wage. As Fight for 15 points out, more than 50 per­cent of Black work­ers earn less than $15 an hour. The nexus between race and class is clear­er than ever. Mon­ey spent on bloat­ed police bud­gets effec­tive­ly short­changes pub­lic ser­vices and pub­lic education.

Today’s Black free­dom fight­ers echo King’s work, but take the pol­i­tics of inclu­sion and a rad­i­cal ethos of jus­tice fur­ther. MBL orga­niz­ers stress the Black fem­i­nist prin­ci­ple of inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty and they extend it to issues of gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty, some­thing King gave scant atten­tion to. They have pub­li­cized and ral­lied against anti-trans vio­lence and insist­ed on the lead­er­ship of women and queer folk in move­ment spaces.

Dr. King con­clud­ed his speech by insist­ing that in moments of his­toric junc­ture, we have to make a choice, a dif­fi­cult choice: Do we resist or do we acqui­esce? That choice is before us again today. Let us begin,” he urged, let us reded­i­cate our­selves to the long and bit­ter, but beau­ti­ful, strug­gle for a new world.”

For events and dis­cus­sions com­mem­o­rat­ing Dr. King’s speech, see Nation­al Coun­cil of Elders. To find out more about the Move­ment for Black Lives’ Beyond the Moment cam­paign, go to beyondthe​mo​ment​.org.

Bar­bara Rans­by is a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois-Chica­go and the author of Ella Bak­er and the Black Free­dom Move­ment: A Rad­i­cal Demo­c­ra­t­ic Vision. She is a long­time activist and a founder of the group Ella’s Daughters.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH