The Real News Network : Jared Ball: Martin Luther King Jr. stood for revolutionary transformation; he is used today to support policies that he fought against
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. January 17 this year is Martin Luther King Day. Couple of quotes from Martin Luther King that you might not hear at most celebrations go like this:
I’m convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered. . . . Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world, declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. [MLK, Beyond Vietnam, Riverside Church, 1967]
JAY: Martin Luther King called for “hostility” against racism, militarism, poverty, not for civility, yet these days civility is the watchword. Now joining us to talk about what happens to revolutionaries, people with revolutionary spirit, when they have days named after them, is Jared Ball. Jared Ball is an assistant professor of communications studies at Morgan State University, an independent journalist, and for four years on a American aircraft carrier. Thanks for joining us, Jared.
JARED BALL, ASST. PROF., MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY: It’s a pleasure.
JAY: So what’s your take on what’s happened to the memory of Martin Luther King?
BALL: Well, annually it’s distorted, reimaged, and repackaged into something that the state can continue to use. It’s taken away from the King that actually existed and turned into something that will support the policies that he was actually advocating against, sort of in perpetuity. So every year we’re asked to forget some of the quotes that you just played, and we’re asked to forget his criticisms of capitalism, of racism and militarism, and we’re asked to forget that he was a supporter of world revolution, we’re asked to forget that he was a staunch supporter of labor, and as you said or as you played in the clip, that he was advocating for divine dissatisfaction with the state and all of its harmful effects, and the violence of the state, the violence of its economic models as they impact people here and abroad.
JAY: So why does the conservative icon president, Reagan, sign a declaration to have a Martin Luther King Day?
BALL: Well, I mean, in many ways it’s–you know, Howard Zinn used to say that omission is worse than lying. If you lie to someone, you leave a trail; if you omit something, you leave no trail for people to investigate and discover the truth. Dr. King was probably too big to fully omit, and there was enough of a groundswell in this country and around the world, given even the anti-apartheid movement and other struggles that were happening at the time that were, you know, sort of capturing the minds of good, well-meaning people all around the world and in this country, a strong push to get some sort of commemoration for somebody who was so well loved that you can’t omit him. So let’s honor him. We’ll prop him up every year. He did it begrudgingly, of course. I mean, Reagan didn’t–. You know. And then every year we’ll remind people of a version of King that didn’t actually exist but that will help people settle into an acceptance of what’s still going on, all of which, again, King was aggressively trying to organize us to wipe out.
JAY: I guess one part of it is good, ’cause at least it makes, every year, people talk about this and gives us an opportunity to have a discussion. But is this also about trying to eliminate the significance of that, you know, civil rights uprising in the 1960s, just how profound that was?
BALL: Well, in part it’s to do just that. It’s also to give the impression that that movement was successful and it could be put into the dustbins of history. You know, sort of from time to time, you know, happily we can look back on it and smile and have fond memories of the hard times that we’ve overcome and so on and so forth, and then, of course, forget that almost everything that Dr. King was trying to get us to get rid of was actually worsening–and to this day is in some aspects still worsening.
JAY: Then what do you make of President Obama’s back-and-forth with Reverend Wright, the renowned speech he made on race, but more or less said that this sort of systemic racism that Wright was talking about is of the past, and people like Wright, he kind of hinted at, have their heads back in the 1960s?
BALL: Well, I mean, this is the problem, that when people raise, you know, a substantive criticism of what’s happening now (and look at the conditions of black people, of working people, of Latinos in the world today) and say, hey, a lot of the things that King was saying make sense today, are no, no, let’s not look at that. You know, this is not the day of King. You know, we had King’s civil rights movement. You got the Civil Rights Act. You got the voting rights act. Let’s move on. You know, you don’t have the sign, the overt signs of an apartheid state that existed in this country. You know.
JAY: Well, unless you go to certain cities which have essentially apartheid districts.
BALL: Well, I mean, in reality, socially, in terms of public education and so on, we’re as segregated today as ever. So, I mean–but in terms of the overt sign, I meant–by which I meant, you know, “no niggers allowed” signs, “no Latinos and dogs allowed on the lawn” type stuff, you know, “whites only”, they don’t say that; they just raise the rent, and then you have the same effect. But can I just say, you know, I think it’s also important to note that one of the things I think happens, where I almost disagree, you know, when the film Malcolm X was made and after I saw what was done to Malcolm by Spike Lee and Warner Bros., you know, I made the argument then that, you know, one of the problems that I have with it, sort of to the contrary of what you were just saying about at least it gives us a chance to talk about it is that it wipes out–I think it more blunts discussion rather than encourages it, because people get a sanitized version of these people, and they walk away thinking they got enough or they think that they know enough. And then it blocks further research, further discussion, further critical analysis, and certainly further organization around the principles these people were advocating. So in that way I think it’s almost kind of like we’ll give you–we will overfeed you to the point where you will just become stuffed and lazy with it, as opposed to–.
JAY: Tell me what–King himself went through a transition and, you know, towards his last period of his life became much more radicalized. His language against the Vietnam War became much, much stronger. But in terms of your own arc, now, you come–I know you and I know your parents were both quite progressive. But in terms of your own arc, what did King’s words and message–how did that influence you?
BALL: Well, initially it didn’t at all. I mean, initially I went through, I think, the same stages that a lot of young people go through, where they pick up King and they get the sanitized version and, like, oh, he was soft, it didn’t speak to what we needed for our manhood or our womanhood. We all said, I’m Malcolm, I want Malcolm, I don’t–you know, we put up this sort of false binary. And then one day I happened to–I was encouraged to read Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, his last full-length book, and in that book I literally kept closing it and kept, you know, wondering: had someone slipped Malcolm’s manifesto in a book with King on the cover? Because you start to realize, wow, King, you know, this argument of the change, you know, we get the mythology that Malcolm changed and–.
JAY: Okay, just very quickly, for some of our younger viewers, we’re talking about Malcolm X. And if you don’t know, you can go to Wikipedia, and there’s lots of places you can go. But some of our viewers are younger and they’re just kind of learning some of this stuff. Go ahead.
BALL: So, you know, we get the impression, we get the mythology about Malcolm X, the post-Mecca Malcolm, where he made changes that in effect really didn’t–he didn’t make in terms of his analysis, particularly of the United States and Western imperialism. And then we get a version of King that he was just soft, when in fact not only were they meeting personally and literally in real life, but they were actually coordinating efforts to split up the movement. And more that–less that Malcolm X was softening to where King was, King was sort of hardening to where Malcolm was; he was reaching conclusions that Malcolm X had reached long before, particularly on issues of Vietnam, imperialism in general, and the specific workings of capitalism and racism in this country. So what we end up getting is, you know, a lot of us go through this–you know, again, we create this false binary, you know, Malcolm versus Martin, which one are you, and then we even use it to test one another, like, you know, when you first meet somebody [inaudible]
JAY: When one looks at the general, publicized, media-exposed King celebrations, you know, one sees the kind of King you’re talking about, the symbol for racial unity, a man of peace, he’s compared to Gandhi, and all of this. But in the African-American community itself, do you see more of this real radical King?
BALL: Certainly not enough, and I worry about it to the extent that I don’t. There’s not enough of a discussion of the real politics of King. A lot of people do get caught up in the commemoration aspect of it. A lot of people get caught up in–some people even, you know, take advantage of it and want to use King to prop themselves up or to bring more people into whatever flock that they’re trying to generate. But I also think, more importantly than that, that we have to remember that at the time of King’s assassination he was ostracized by many in his own movement. A lot of the civil rights leadership that today would not publicly acknowledge this had distanced themselves from King at the end of his life. Certainly the state itself had distanced itself from King at the end of his life. Popular media castigated him routinely at the end of his life. So this kind of let’s come back now and reimage him as a hero is really disturbing, considering all the vitriol that was thrown at him while he was alive by people in and out of the movement.
JAY: So which quote or idea of King’s do you find most relevant today?
BALL: Well, I think a lot of his quotes are most relevant. His statements against mass incarceration, where he talked about the burgeoning prison-industrial complex and where he talked about–even specifically concerning what’s happening now is his commemoration is being attached to the terrible events in Arizona recently, where he said–you know, he talked about crime and he talked about real crime, so he would say, yes–he said something to the effect that, yes, it’s terrible that black people will commit crimes, but those crimes he called–were “derivative crimes”, and derivative crimes against–of the real crimes of white America. So he was talking about the violence of capitalism, the violence of an increasingly militarized police state within the country, particularly as it regards black America and those in struggle. He also talked about me. [sic] He also said the bombs that are dropped on Vietnam explode at home. And what he meant by that, obviously, was that the billions that are being spent on war could be used to refurbish and re-energize the society and turn it into the country that it claims it was set up to be at the beginning. Another one that also resonates with me is his criticism of liberals and progressives in white America, where he talked about how they would be willing to work with them when they were being beaten and hosed, but when it came to getting real economic reform and real justice in this country and freedom and equality, they walked off with the aggressors, he said. So–.
JAY: In terms of actually challenging who owns stuff.
BALL: That’s right, who owns stuff, you know, ’cause he said it’s great now that the lunch counter is desegregated, that’s wonderful, but the hamburger that used to be $0.25 is now $2.50. So it’s sort of what I was saying at the beginning: you don’t have to put “no negroes allowed” on the building anymore; you just jack up the rent and they’re gone. He also, by the way, just–he was also a Duboisian, and people also forget that. Even within the black community they often forget that he was a supporter of Du Bois and Du Bois’s politics. So (A) he supported the armed struggles in Africa and Latin America. He did support those movements in Angola and Mozambique, in South Africa, and etc. He also was very quick to be critical of the black middle class, unlike, you know, many of the so-called black leaders today, like Oprah or Bill Cosby, who are quick to blame everything on the black poor. King was very different. He said–not only in agreement with Du Bois’ do we need a talented tenth, but he was also in agreement with Du Bois’s own criticism of the talented tenth, when Du Bois in 1948 said we need a guiding one hundredth, because this talented tenth wasn’t doing–I didn’t mean for you to become doctors and dentists and go off into the suburbs and leave your community; I meant for you to take the money and the resources and the expertise that you have to help your people. And this was also King’s challenge to those in our community who were standing on the sidelines letting the poor people do all the work and get all the beatings. But then, as we know looking back, you know, particularly now–King saw it then–it’s the middle class that got most of the benefit that came from the civil rights movement.
JAY: Well, there’s a sort of theory–I guess it’s akin to trickle-down economics–that if a section of the black community joins the elite, there’ll be a sort of a trickle-down effect to the rest of the black community. And then the other piece of that is that the election of President Obama is sort of an achievement of King’s dreams, some people say. And there’s certainly some belief of–at least some belief within the black community itself. What do you make of that?
BALL: Well, again, I think you can only make that assertion if you accept what I’m describing as a bastardized version of King’s image. The real King, the real politics of King, would not have accepted, I think–I can’t think of anything, actually, that Dr. King would have accepted or found acceptable in the presidency of Barack Obama. He was not one for just show-change or, you know, sort of what they called, in terms of African liberation, “flag independence”. He was not for that. I mean, he was very clear, he said very clearly, he made the analogy, a football analogy, after this time, I mean, he said the civil rights movement was like rushing the ball to the 50-yard line and putting it down and claiming touchdown. So he’s very clear this is not a game. This is not–we don’t want a bill. He even said very clearly, this–you know, our freedom can’t come at the end of a Johnson signature; it can’t come in a bill or an act.
JAY: You mean President Johnson.
BALL: President Johnson, yes. It comes from our collective work with other people who are concerned along with us to change the society, to have the radical revolution of values that he talked about. So I don’t think the real King that existed, the real King that became a threat to national security (as described in the pages of The Washington Post less than 90 days before his assassination), that King cannot be–you know, is inconsistent, incompatible with what we’re seeing today. And I think those that would make those attachments, try to make that connection between King and Obama, or–and that line that came out that Rosa sat so King could walk so Obama could run so we could fly is just not the reality of the politics of Dr. King, and he left enough documentation that you don’t have to take my word for it.
JAY: Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us. If you want to hear more of Jared and if you live in the Washington area, you can find him on Pacifica Radio on Friday mornings. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.