teleSur English, August 2, 2015Bernie Sanders, Dr. King, and the Triple Evils
In the final years of his life, the increasingly radical Black Civil Rights, peace, and social justice leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and wrote against what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated.” The first such evil was racism, deeply understood to mean not just prejudiced white sentiments and formal segregation in the U.S. South but the racially separate and unequal functioning of the nation’s basic institutions and social structures.
The second evil was poverty and economic inequality – class injustice, which King rooted in capitalism. That system, King felt, “produces beggars” alongside luxuriant opulence, necessitating “the radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
The third evil was U.S. military imperialism – no mere afterthought in King’s critique of the American System. Explaining why he had turned openly against Washington’s monstrous war on Vietnam in 1967, King argued that conscience did not permit him to remain silent on the crimes the “strange [American] liberators” were committing in Southeast Asia. At the same time, he noted, his condemnation of America’s role as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world today” (a description that still rings true today) was strongly linked to his struggles against racial and economic disparity in the U.S.
Reflecting on the race riots that washed across U.S. cities in the summers of 1966 and 1967, King blamed the reactionary posture of “the white society, unprepared and unwilling to accept radical structural change.” He also attributed the violence to U.S. militarism. The Pentagon, King noted, sent poor blacks to the front killing lines to a disproportionate degree. It modelled the destructive notion that violence was a reasonable response and even a solution to social and political problems. Black Americans and others sensed what King called “the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit,” King said.
At the same time, King knew that U.S. war and militarism stole resources from the nation’s briefly declared and barely fought “War on Poverty.” Besides murdering peasants and others in Southeast Asia, the deadly imperial expenditures had crushed “hope for the [U.S.] poor – both black and white.” The anti-poverty program was “broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle plaything of a society gone mad” on a militarism that drew “men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube…A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” King added, “is approaching spiritual death.”
Recently, the nominally democratic-socialist, Scandinavia-admiring Democratic Party presidential candidate and U.S Senator (“I”-VT) Bernie Sanders spoke to Dr. King’s old organization – the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – in an attempt to demonstrate his commitment to racial justice. Reflecting the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen in response to racist police killings, Sanders came to the SCLC armed with a surplus of terrible statistics on US racial disparities and institutional racism. He showed himself knowledgeable on these topics, though he was far too ready to portray racism as merely an economic problem and he failed to mention the persistent deep de facto residential and educational segregation – the continuing American race apartheid – that contributes richly to racial inequality in the US today.
Sanders seemed eager to wrap himself in the legacy of Dr. King. Bernie trumpeted his own youthful work in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He quoted King on the disgraceful existence of mass poverty in a land of prosperity and on the obscenity that (as King noted in Memphis, Tennessee just days before his assassination) “most of the poor people in our country are working every day…and…making wages so low they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” After praising King for understanding that (in Sanders’ words) “it is useless to try to address race without also taking on the larger issue of [economic] inequality” (one might counter that it is essential to fight racism and racial division to struggle usefully against economic injustice), Sanders moved into long, fact-filled reflections on wealth and income inequality and corporate plutocracy in contemporary New Gilded Age America. He reiterated his standard campaign denunciations of the Republican Party, the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers, and the Supreme Court’s oligarchic Citizens United decision. He denounced Republican efforts to disenfranchise Black voters. He called for major federal jobs programs and infrastructure investments, combined with progressive taxation and single-payer health insurance, to fight poverty, create good jobs, and redistribute wealth and power in the U.S.
It was a good progressive speech on numerous levels. Dr. King would have politely applauded throughout most of it. At the same time, the great Civil Rights leader would have been disturbed by the absence in Sanders’ oration of any comprehension or concern whatsoever regarding the last of King’s “triple evils.” As King would certainly note if he were alive today, Bernie is – just like some of King’s fellow democratic-socialist Civil Rights and anti-poverty leaders (Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington, and A. Phillip Randolph) in the mid-1960s – hung up on the U.S. war machine.
Sanders’ silence on the final component of King’s great triplet at the SCLC is consistent with his long and ongoing record of supporting Washington’s criminal military adventures (when they are commanded by U.S. Presidents from the Democratic Party) abroad and Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. The Senator barrels ahead, calling for expensive (and desperately needed) domestic social and environmental programs without making any serious reference to how the United States’ gargantuan war budget devours more than half of the nation’s federal discretionary spending – without any attention to Dr. King’s warnings on “spiritual death.” He upholds the social-democratic Scandinavian welfare states as a role model for the U.S. without noting the critical fact that Denmark, Norway, and Sweden dedicate comparatively tiny portions of their budgets to military spending. He seems unwilling to acknowledge that the U.S. cannot have the progressive changes he advocates as long as it remains a military superpower with tentacles of deadly and vastly expensive force in nearly every corner of the planet.
Related to all this, Sanders does not seem to have any of Dr. King’s accurate historical sense of the United States’ longstanding misconduct at home and abroad. At the end of his SCLC speech, Sanders said that ordinary Americans need to “once again make the United States the leader in the world in the fight for economic and social justice, for environmental sanity and for a world of peace.” It was a curiously propagandistic statement with little respect for the historical record. Dr. King would rightly have found it very odd.
Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)