ST. MARTIN, THE MILITANT
By Mumia Abu-Jamal, M.A.
January 10, 2001
“One night toward the end of January I settled into bed
late, after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen
asleep and just as I was about to doze off the telephone
rang. An angry voice said, "Listen, nigger, we've
taken all we want from you; before next week you'll be sorry
you ever came to Montgomery." I hung up, but I couldn't
Rev. Martin L. King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom
Three nights after this phone call, King's house was bombed.
It is possible, in this age of consumer-driven commodification,
for millions to know a name, to recognize an image, and
still to know next to nothing about the recognized figure.
It has been over 30 years since the assassination of Dr.
King, and in the 3 decades thereafter, few Americans, black
or white, have been so honored, so lionized, or so deeply
projected into public consciousness, as a figure of peace.
This would not be so objectionable were it not for the purposes
of that projection.
Much of the projection seems purely commercial, a secular
day-off for millions of workers, to allow them to stimulate
the economy by buying stuff in the King Day Sale. Much
of it also seems political, as Rev. King is raised as a
kind of talisman, a symbol of peace meant to keep the natives
calm in times of discontent.
But symbols are funny things. They are sometimes overrun
by the rampaging complexities of reality. Living beings
change, develop and grow. And Dr. King, in his later years
(and under pressure from black radicals and militants on
his left) became increasingly disenchanted with society,
and of course, those who ruled the social order.
Black Christian theologian, Dr. James H. Cone, in his
excellent Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream
or a Nightmare (Orbis, 1991), draws a compelling portrait
of King's private and public selves, and his growing openness
to radical ideas. Cone writes that Martin's wife, Coretta,
who knew him best, saw him inching closer and closer to
the views of Malcolm X. Indeed, Coretta S. King said as
much, in her My Life with Martin Luther King, where
she saw "firm agreement" between the two men on
"certain aspects" of Malcolm's program. She sensed
that "at some point the two would have come closer
together and would have been a very strong force in the
total struggle for liberation and self-determination of
black people in our society."
This was not to be.
Waves of rebellions in black communities in 1967 shook
King, and opened his eyes to what he called "a system
of internal colonialism." In words that would seem
to presage the fiery words of Dr. Huey P. Newton and the
Black Panthers a season later, King observed: "The
slum is little more than a domestic colony which leaves
its inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically,
segregated and humiliated at every turn" (Cone, p.
With these attacks on the economic
injustices in America came criticism of King by the media
and their moneyed masters. To his eternal credit, King
did not turn from his vision, and instead heightened his
economic critique, saying, at the SCLC Convention of Aug.
We've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.
We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's
market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice
which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that
questions must be raised. "Who owns this oil?"...
"Who owns the iron ore?"... "Why is it that
people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds
water?" (Cone, 224).
This is the voice of a man who was being radicalized.
Nor were his previous feelings of confidence and faith in
white Americans unchanged. King called America a "confused,"
"sick," and "neurotic" nation, telling
a group of blacks in Louisville that "the vast majority
of white Americans are racist," whether consciously
or unconsciously (Cone, p. 233).
In months thereafter, he would severely criticize the
Vietnam War, and call the U.S. the "greatest purveyor
of violence in the world today" (Cone, p. 237) at his
"Beyond Vietnam" speech at Riverside Church in
New York City. Relatively shortly thereafter, Dr. King
was sent to his fathers and from this world.
As King Day once again passes, let us all remember that
a man is more than a symbol. Let us remember his growing
radicalization, for if we have an idea where he was going,
we begin to see why the powers that be, (the rulers, the
FBI, the police, etc.) didn't want him to arrive.
This column may be reprinted and/or distributed by electronic
means, but only for non commercial use, and only with the
inclusion of the following copyright information:
Text (c) copyright 2001 by Mumia Abu-Jamal. All rights
reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.