The Selling of Martin Luther King

This month's holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., should be a time for renewed reflection and discussion on poverty and racism in America. Instead, we hear talk about alleged conspiracies and plots to kill King.The talk is triggered in part by news reports that King's convicted assassin James Earl Ray is near death in a prison hospital. Ray's attorney, William Pepper, has seized on the attention to push his claim that Ray is a Lee Harvey Oswald-type patsy and that King's killing was orchestrated by the government. Then, too, the 1978 book by Dick Gregory and mark Lane claiming the FBI killed King was recently reissued. And Ray's own book, in which he protested his innocence and hinted of a frame-up, is attracting new media interest. There's even talk of a movie written and directed by -- who else? -- Oliver Stone, on the King assassination.The search for truth is noble, but I suspect the conspiracy theorists are less concerned with protecting the King legacy than with profiting from it.Charges about the contradictions and inconsistencies between King's public stance and private life have piled up since he was killed in 1968. But King was consistent on one thing. He abhorred personal wealth. For years, the King family lived in what could charitably be called a ramshackle house. As his family grew in size, friends (and family members) begged him to move to a larger house, but King resisted. In 1965, he gave in and paid the grand sum of $10,000 for a larger home -- but he continued to complain that it was "too big" and "elegant."He railed against some of his staffers for lavish personal spending. His speeches increasingly incorporated anti-capitalist rhetoric, and denounced American society as greedy and materialistic.On several occasions, King told friends and staffers that he believed in "democratic socialism" for America and often expressed admiration for the writings of Karl Marx. By 1968, he had strayed from the goals of civil rights and moderate political change, and was calling for "a fundamental redistribution of wealth." He accused the U.S. government of waging an "imperialist war" against Vietnamese peasants.King was branded a Communist. The Johnson White House turned hostile. Corporate and foundation supporters slowly turned off the money spigot, leaving his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in deep financial trouble. King spent much of his time during his last days fund-raising and defending his policies. But he refused to back down, and launched more attacks on what he called America's "property centered and profit centered" lust.Today King would be appalled by the MTV generation's self-indulgent grab for expensive cars, clothes, and dollars, by the get-rich-quick "gangsta" lifestyle of many young blacks.The irony is that King did much to make that lifestyle possible. Since the civil rights movement broke the back of legal segregation, the doors have opened to blacks: nearly one third now have incomes in excess of $35,000 a year; in 1995 the top 100 black businesses had gross sales of $11 billion. In 1995, 75 percent of blacks graduated from high school and 32 percent attended college.This generation has had a bite of the pie -- and wants more. To them, ideology has become a dirty word. In the era of conservative revolt by angry white males, King's demand for massive government-funded programs for the poor sounds like a bad joke. The truth is that King was a man for his times, but not for these times.If, as psychologist Eric Fromm has said, "things are expressed in commodities" in a capitalist society, then it was inevitable that King's legacy would be turned into a commodity, to be packaged and sold to the public. It may be the American way. But, lest we forget, it was not King's way.

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