Dr. King’s Televised Challenge to Obama: Tavis Smiley’s Antiwar MLK

By Glen Ford

Tavis Smiley has done history and the current crop of humans a huge service. Like a pre-emptive bolt of truth from the ancestors, Smiley’s PBS special “MLK: A Call to Conscience”1 begins the anniversary week of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination with a focus on the April 4, 1967 speech that marked his definitive break with President Lyndon Johnson and U.S. imperial wars. Any sane and honest person exposed to the magnificent reasoning of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” address, would forever recoil at comparisons between the martyred champion of peace and human rights and the incumbent imperial warlord and Wall Street Lord Protector, Barack Obama. Hopefully, Tavis Smiley’s timely intervention with the scheduled airing of the program on Wednesday, March 31, will inoculate viewers from the howling King-Obama nonsense that has polluted the slain leader’s birth and death days since the onset of the Obama phenomenon.

Far from playing Joshua to King’s Moses, Obama’s life path has drawn him back to Egypt as Pharaoh, with all the attendant obligations to empire. If there is such a thing as secular sacrilege, it is embedded in the campaign t-shirts featuring the historic photo of Dr. King shaking hands with Malcolm X—with Obama’s face imposed on Malcolm’s. One’s sense of decency buckles at the casual vulgarity of this insult to another great martyr in the fight against Pharaoh. Obama is superimposed on Black history—fouling it in the process—obliterating one Black hero while clutching the hand of another as if to drag him back to the Nile, or Babylon, or Wall Street, or some unclean place.

Smiley’s cameras caress Riverside Church as if it were a sanctum for Martin, the minister’s antiwar sermon/manifesto seeming to echo from the vaulted ceilings. We hear Dr. King’s indictment of the United States that has held true for 43 years: that it is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” In the presence of that voice and those words, who can escape the reality that Barack Obama is today engorged in unfathomable violence like no other human on the face of the Earth? One wants to scream at the specter of the sacrilegious t-shirt, to tell the pasted on Obama-face, Get your hand out of Martin’s hand, you fraud, you imposter! You don’t belong in that picture, or in that company!

Smiley muses with one of his guests that, “some of us have never really wanted to wrestle with who Martin Luther King really was.” What an understatement! In truth, it is impossible to escape the radical meaning of Dr. King’s pro-democracy, antiwar, anti-imperialist, and anti-rule-of-the-rich politics, unless one actively resists understanding King’s voluminous writings and speeches. Only through a willful or imposed ignorance can one arrive at the conclusion that Martin Luther King and Barack Obama could in any way be found on the same side of history. The commander-in-chief of the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” cannot be an ally of peace, or of social and economic justice.

Dr. King confronted that contradiction head-on, in 1967, when he realized his collaboration with the most powerful man in the world, President Lyndon Johnson, was doomed by the Vietnam War. King made the divorce official at Riverside Church. “America,” he said, “would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”

Two generations later, the military suction tube is still on full blast, and another lethal leech is sucking the economy dry: Wall Street. Barack Obama has facilitated the transfer of trillions to the Wall Street Casinos, while presiding over military budgets larger than Lyndon Johnson’s. Who can doubt that Dr. King would be locked in confrontation with Obama, were he alive today?

Entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte, a great financial and moral supporter of King’s work and the larger movement, told Tavis Smiley that King knew exactly what he was doing “once he cross-pollinated our movement with the efforts of the peace movement.” That is, King understood both the personal dangers involved in forging the connection between peace and social justice, as well as the vast potential for radical change that could be unleashed by intermingling the movements.

King saw the struggle for justice as indivisible. In the same fashion, “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” as King described them at Riverside Church, combine to undermine the progress of humanity.

Aside from the battle for equal Black citizenship status—which was already essentially won by 1967—the great issues facing Black America remain much the same: imperial wars; raging racism, especially in criminal justice; and vast economic inequalities. On these issues, there is very little political or moral common ground that Dr. King and President Obama could share. Less, I believe, than the commonalities shared by King and Lyndon Johnson—including on how to confront institutional racism.

Tavis Smiley, unjustly labeled an Obama “hater” by the mob during the campaign, is clearly aware that his focus on King’s Riverside speech represents a challenge to Obama’s war policies, which are in sharp contrast to the anti-imperial stance King so effectively articulated more than four decades ago. The speech “has the most to teach us, today,” in the midst of multiple U.S. wars, said Smiley.

Nearly three out of four white people registered their strong disapproval of Dr. King, following his antiwar speech. More than half of Black Americans polled gave the King bad marks—although not necessarily for the same reasons. The National Urban League and the NAACP, predictably, put plenty of distance between themselves and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader, and even his fellow SCLC ministers were fit to be tied. That King is today viewed as having been on the right side of such momentous issues speaks, not just to his courage, but to his superior understanding of the dynamics of history.

Dr. Clayborne Carson, director of the King Institute at Stanford University, and one of Smiley’s interviewees for the PBS program, said he “wondered sometimes at these Martin Luther King celebrations, if King would be invited.” Certainly King, with his principled antiwar position and opposition to concentrated economic power, would not be one of the president’s favorite people. But then, if King had lived, if the mass movement had not been dismantled by internal and external forces, the seeds of radical change might have been planted deeper, and Black folks might not have been bamboozled two generations later by Dr. King’s political opposite, the war mongering, Wall Street-loving, won’t lift a finger for Black people president, Barack Obama., March 31, 2010

1 MLK: A Call to Conscience

Premiered Mar. 31, 8/7c