By Jordan T. Camp, author of Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State.
This post is published in conjunction with the Law and Society Association annual conference in Toronto, June 7-10, 2018. Join Jordan T. Camp for a discussion on Neoliberal Confinements Friday, 6/8, 2:45pm. #LSACA18
The year 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, a year to the day and hour after his 1967 Riverside Church speech where he famously breached the Cold War consensus by opposing the US war in Vietnam and illuminating the relationships between “racism, materialism, and militarism.” Although many of his aides insisted that he should remain focused on the purportedly domestic civil rights struggle against Jim Crow, King disclosed the “cruel irony” of television images depicting black and white soldiers as “they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” Mass audiences, he noted, were thus presented with a kind of “brutal solidarity” between working-class soldiers of empire as they burned “the huts of a poor village” but “would never live on the same block in Detroit.”
King was compelled to intervene amid growing resistance to the US imperialism and an expanding geography of urban uprisings in Watts (1965), Detroit (1967), and hundreds of other cities against police violence. Significantly, King argued that the same security forces deployed in the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam were being used to suppress these struggles in North America. He noted “the bizarre spectacle of armed forces of the United States fighting in ghetto streets of America while they are fighting in jungles in Asia,” and he underscored that these political responses to the dramatic events “extinguished the beginnings of progress toward racial justice.” Amidst a multi-sited deployment of force aimed at ensuring at once the containment of communism, the suppression of urban uprisings and anti-war mobilizations, and the consolidation of US hegemony on a global scale, King’s words poignantly articulated an internationalist perspective.
A veteran of peace, freedom, and labor struggles, King had come to the inescapable conclusion that overcoming racism would require attacking its roots in the political economy of capitalism and US imperialism. As such, his critique of Jim Crow capitalism and imperial war signaled a legitimacy crisis—one that led him to declare that he “could never against raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos” without first speaking “clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” Indeed, King observed the ways in which bombs deployed in Vietnam did “explode at home.”
A half century later, King’s words continue to resonate. In view of the present crisis of the carceral state and the current president’s ongoing threats of war around the world, it is worth reconsidering the analysis of Dr. King during the US imperial war in Vietnam. After all, his radical vision of social change is being taken up by popular democratic movements in the present. Fifty years after its launch, Dr. William J. Barber and Dr. Liz Theoharis have sought to complete the unfinished business of King’s Poor People Campaign, which was stopped short by his assassination. The Poor People’s Campaign are focused on building a broad popular alliance against racism, militarism, poverty, and ecological devastation. They are engaged in civil disobedience and mass mobilization to highlight the conditions that devastate the poor and the dispossessed. Their demands for the redirection of resources away from war and toward the fight against poverty and climate catastrophe suggests a common organizing basis to complete the unfinished business of the long civil rights movement. In this decisive moment, perhaps it is time to take up that challenge Dr. King spoke of five decades ago and “rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle.”