Cornel West reflects on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a radical.

Cornel West

Credit: Robin Holland

Cornel West Resurrects Martin Luther King's Essential Radicalism

January 15, 2016

Professor Cornel West joined Security Mom host Juliette Kayyem to discuss Martin Luther King Jr.'s radicalism, the way history may have sanitized him and changed the way we think about contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter.

Juliette Kayyem: So let's start, you know, obviously this weekend is coming up and a celebration, but also a memory of Martin Luther King. Um, you've said that Martin Luther King has been sanitized, and what you do mean by that?

Cornel West: I mean that Martin Luther King Jr. is a product of a black freedom movement that has been wrestling with tear and trauma and stigma for four hundred years. And when you actually look at his development-- let's say from 1955 in Montgomery to when he was shot in Memphis is 1968. You actually see somebody who was coming to terms not with racism, but with poverty. Not just with poverty, but with materialism which for him was a spiritual condition-- and not just with materialism-- but also with militarism. And so at the very end, when he called himself a democratic socialist, at the very end-- when he's under surveillance and he knows it-- by the FBI, at the very end when he's made connections with (not just critiques) the Vietnam war, but of course with movements in Africa, undergoing decolonization. You see a coming together of a variety of different streams and strands of the black freedom movement that makes him much more radical than we often hear in the speeches that take place every year in January.

Juliette Kayyem: And these later speeches you describe in your book, essentially describe the radical King. Who is he? And I know this is a hypothetical question but what might he have become, this radical King if he had lived?

Cornel West: He did recognize that if we're going to be fundamentally committed to public life, public service, a healthy public conversation, and a deep concern with the rights and liberties of each and every one of us. No matter what color, sexual orientation, or gender. That he had to wrestle with this tension between private power, on the one hand-- be it in the private sector--  a shadow economy, but also in the public sector, in terms of a shadow government. And uh I think that the relevance of King these days is actually looms large, because of course we never know what we would have become-- he was shot dead at 39. But my hunch is that he would have remained a very deep critic of American Empire, or American capitalism and it's predatory form of any forms of materialisms that became so obsessed with things and money and big position. And status that it downplayed the plight of the weak and the vulnerable, the poor, the disabled, women, gays, lesbians, black people, indigenous peoples, working peoples, and so on. 

Juliette Kayyem: Now when he begins to address militarization, you know, another key theme of his later speeches. Pressured may be the wrong word, but it wasn't exactly obvious that that was the path he should have taken. What was he wrestling with because to come out so forcefully, as he later did, and we'll get into some of those speeches against the Vietnam war, was not exactly where people would have placed him originally.

Cornel West: I think that's so true. I mean you had the uh moral and spiritual pressure of giants like rabbi Abraham Joshua Hershel, who had already come out against the war similarly so with out course the legendary Stokely Carmichael putting pressure on King. But I think more than anything else, it had to do with King's deep moral and spiritual commitment to the notion that babies in Vietnam have the same value as babies in America. And when he saw those pictures in Rampart magazine-- the napalm effects on the precious children, it just shook him. And when he went back to Mississippi in '66 and he asked for a young brother who he had convinced to become part of the non violent movement but who had been drafted, and he asked Stokely what happened to this brother? Stokely said he was killed in Vietnam. And Stokely said "see, I told you! You call for non violence in Mississippi, but you don't call for non violence in Vietnam...and look what happened to this brother!" Oooh that hit my brother Martin hard. 

But Martin in the end he was a Christian. He's basically a love warrior. He's basically trying to love his way through the darkness of the world and wanted to be morally consistent. He wanted what Jane Austen called constancy. He wanted to have an integrity, and he was willing to sacrifice his popularity in order to continue his quest for integrity, and that's one reason why we love him so.

Cornel West

 

Juliette Kayyem: Yeah no I mean he says in one of his speeches "A time comes when silence is betrayal."

Cornel West: That's right. That's exactly right. 

Martin Luther King Jr. At The Riverside Church In New York
Caption
Photo Credit: Archival Record

Juliette Kayyem: In some states you didn't have the op-option and he speaks-- I was sort of surprised by this for-- you know looking through all of his his later speeches, you know especially the ones about militarization-- the extent to which his awarding of the nobel peace prize. It sort of weighs on him?

Cornel West: Oh yes. I think he knew that that went hand in hand with trying to hold up high standards. Now, he already had high standards from the tradition that produced him-- coming out of the black church. Because you got giants, you know Benjamin Mayes, and Fanny Lu Haymer-- these are spiritual giants-- and intellectual giants in the case of Benjamin and moral giants in the case of Fanny Lou Haymer, but I think he knew then that he had to deal with what he called the world-house in that last book of his, "Where We Go From Here," the world-house which means what? which means that he's going to be a cross bearer before he's a flag waver which is that the cross for Martin signified unarmed truth and unconditional love. And the condition of truth was alway to allow suffering to speak and justice is what love looks like in public for him. So that even though he had allegiances to the US nation state, he was in fact a patriot, but he knew that every flag-- for him-- was under the cross, it was under truth it was under love. So he was an internationalist in that broad sense owing to his deep Christian commitment. Therefore when he came out and gazed at his critique, remember Whitney Young went at him and said "oh you set the movement back a generation by linking the struggle for civil rights with the critique of the Vietnam war, and he told brother Whitney, he said "that might get you corporation money, but it won't get you a foothold in the kingdom of truth. I'm a christian minister and I'm bearing witness to truth and love across the board." He was-he was- he was called unAmerican and traitor, and everything else and he said "no, I love America, but I love truth and I love justice, and I'm concerned about it from every corner, nook and cranny of the world. 

Juliette Kayyem: You know in this age of political dialogue, you know where nuance is often lacking. What's remarkable is the extent to which uh uh the Reverend recognized the ambiguity in both sides. In other words uh uh, you know, not willing to say the Vietnamese were perfect.

Cornel West: Oh not at all-- I think-- well one is when you try to stay in contact with the humanity of other people-- no matter who they are then you're looking at it through a certain moral and spiritual lens which means you're gonna have a critique on a variety of different ideological camps. And therefore when Martin for example, you know when he looked at Vietnam, he was concerned about innocent people being killed, uh both innocent Vietnamese and innocent US soldiers. He was concerned about structures of domination. He knew, in fact that the communist side was tied to various structures of domination, but they were also responding to certain imperial structures of domination. And the question was how do you tell the truth to both camps-- to both sides-- in such a way that you hold on at least in aspiring to truth and integrity and love, and therefor he didn't really fit easily in any ideological camp.

Juliette Kayyem: Yeah the notion of you're either with us or against us just doesn't--doesn't--has no place in his sermons.

Cornel West: That's true, I mean he's willing to take moral stands, and so he's willing to go to jail and die, but he know in fact that once you enter the terrain of politics, that you've got lots of corruption on a variety of both sides, and lies and mendacity on both sides, and they both need serious critique, and I think what makes him the deep Democrat that he was was that he was trying to keep the focus on accountability vis-a-vis the demos of the every day people, vis-a-vis citizens-- that precious category that has everything to do with democratic experiments.

Juliette Kayyem: Talk to us a little bit about the draft because unlike today where you know less than one percent of American citizens have any-- you know are either veterans or serve in our wars today which means that we can relegate it to a group of people who voluntarily join the military uh how did he feel about the draft? But also not having a draft also has its moral complications as well..?

Cornel West: No it's true. I think it's true, I mean we have to keep in mind that Martin King was a pacifist. I'm a Christian like him, but I'm not a pacifist, and therefor  even I mean something like a draft already meant that you were going to uh solicit young people to become part of a killing machine, as he would put it. And therefore...the fact that we don't have uh uh a draft where people are uh forced to join-- as was the case in the 60s-- uh unless they opted for Conscientious Objection, objector status that uh you end up not just marginalizing those who go-- because more and more the fighting is rendered invisible because it doesn't effect large sectors and segments of the population. But you also have another phenomenon of course, which is the outsourcing. The kind of commodification of public service where you actually have contracts with private companies who engage in war making. And we've seen this, of course, in the last 25 or 30 years. And I know my dear brother Michael O'Laughlin talks about this his latest book on the deep state. These are very important concerns, because the question then becomes how do we ensure that there's some mechanisms of accountability? Uh uh this what I think Martin would find frightening. What happened when these things are going on through outsourcing and private hands, though very little outside answerability, very little responsibility taken, especially when it effects the lives of innocent people.

Juliette Kayyem: Yeah no I mean I think that that the security state that I was a part of, and that most of my listeners are probably a part of would, you couldn't have even envision at a time of Vietnam. You know though, though the Reverend and was obviously a victim of that surveillance state, and to the extent that the FBI knew exactly what he was doing.

Cornel West: That's right. For many many years, many many years. But I think if Martin were alive, and this is always just a projection of course, but I think that uh he would say first the general principle that if you engage in actions that have adverse on other innocent civilians. That it come back to haunt your own soul, that the issue of drones would be something that he would be wrestling with. He would say on the one hand, okay, we know we've got to deal with gangsters, we've got to deal with people who want to kill us, and yet at this same time you got to both do unto others as you'd have others do unto you so you can't engage in h torture. You can't engage in the killing-- especially the collective killing-- of families when you're trying to zero in on a particular person who is trying to kill you. It has moral and spiritual effects on a nation. And if the nation no longer believes that these are serious issues. then you end up losing your soul and all you have is military power with very little moral-- moral content. And the worst thing you want is simply strength with no sensitivity, the worst thing you want is just military might with no moral content.

Juliette Kayyem: You know the Riverside church speech in '67 really is that moment when you know he breaks his silence-- comes out forcefully against the the Vietnam war in a not just magical and in some ways um uh so prescient to the kind of world that we're in right now, but it's sophisticated. I mean people have tendency to think...

Cornel West: Oh yeah. 

Juliette Kayyem: That... oh well you know he's naive, he doesn't know the evils of the world, and there's something not naive I mean-- exceptionally not naive about it...?

Cornel West:  Oh yeah. 

Juliette KayyemHow did he get-- How did he get there? Was it just too hard to ignore Vietnam at that stage? 

Cornel West:  Well I mean one, and I think our dear president Barack Obama was not as fair as he ought in his speech at--accepting the peace prize. When he juxtapose Martin with himself saying that Martin seemed to not recognize just how evil the world was and you had to be a realist and then we moved toward ... and we're on the way to Henry Kissinger almost in terms of dealing with power. It's a no-- no Martin Luther King Jr. was not naive at all. in fact he had a thick notion of evil. And the question was-- it's so sad that to disrupt evil it seems that we have such weak weapons to do it. Uh and therefore he spent a lot of time, not just on that speech, but thinking about history and what are the conditions under which people are willing to bring pressure to bear on policies that are not just immoral, but we can say these days, illegal because we do have some international law out there in geneva-- uh convention, uh codes out there that we have to come to terms with, you see. And so I think in fact, I think you're right he was not naive at all. He actually felt that if there was going to be any substantive democratic experiments-- we're not talking about oligarchic states or authoritarian states or imperial states that talk a good democratic game, but act on the ground autocratically, and antidemocratically, he was a genuine deep democrat. Now if somebody says, that's naive-- that's a larger issue, you know we go back to Plato. Plato believed it wasn't naive. John Dewey believed it was naive well that's a larger philosophical issue, but Martin Luther King was with John Dewey. We've got to follow thorough on deep democratic politics in which we can have and tie democratic policy, you can't have autocratic policies uh of which there is no accountability vis-a-vis the demos. And at that point, he came up with that powerful speech that people can read and reread in either the text you're alluding to or any other get--collection of essays. 

Juliette Kayyem: Yeah it's-- it's maybe also depressing to read only because in the middle of a campaign and you know a threat of uh terrorism here in the united states, you know we talk about keeping Muslims out of the country, and surveying mosques and keeping Syrian refugees out and King at one point says "these are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness."

Cornel West: Absolutely

Juliette Kayyem: And that is maybe more so than any religious lesson is something that we might learn in today's dialogue which does not come even close to a calm reasonableness. 

Cornel West: No that's true, but as you recall the most controversial statement of that speech when he said "my own government is the biggest purveyor violence in the world." And people said wait a minute that sounds like Radio Hannoi propaganda. What is Martin talking about? And of course what he was talking about was the bombs in Vietnam, and we make it to 2015, and we know there's a whole lotta gangsters and thugs out there sister Juliette, we know that, but when we actually look at the US invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the drones dropping bombs in Somalia and Yemen and Pakistan, and you begin to say well what would be the blow back? What would be the response to that? Well you would hope it would be democratic? That's why some of us were so excited about the Arab Spring, trying to democratize uh uh uh uh Arab governments, democratize governments in Northern Africa and the Middle East, reforming Islam so they can undergo a kind of democratization in regard to its effects. And we've seen this with judaism, we've seen this with christianity and their best, it's like-- at their worst of course, christianity, judaism, or islam we've seen antidemocratic responses too, but with the collapse of the Arab Spring in Syria sets in, more chaos, here come the fascists, here come the thugs, here come the gangsters and ISIS uh uh building on earlier gangsters and Al Qaida, but Martin would want to say yes we must be anti fascist, but we must be anti imperialist if our own invasions and occupations are killing many innocent people and they have families that will respond in the form of a blowback, and if that blowback is not democratic, we have to deal with the consequences. And these are are uh very very difficult. I don't think there's any easy answer to this, but Martin's sensitivity would be such that we have to be as much concerned with innocent civilians uh in other countries as we are innocent civilians here even as we recognize the crucial role of trying to keep alive the best of a democratic experiment in the midst of an American empire. 

Juliette Kayyem: Today we have a very powerful force in the black lives matter movement,  how do you--how would you link that with what Dr. King was talking about in terms of militarization of the United States?

Cornel West: : Yeah well you call brother Martin and said that SNCC was a marvelous new militancy. The average age of SNCC member was 24 years old, and I would say the same thing about the black lives matter movement...or really it's motion and momentum, it's not a movement yet, but it's wonderful motion and momentum. There's a marvelous militancy, but the fundamental question is always whether they're rage will be filtered through love and justice as opposed to hatred and resent. Will they be able to stay in contact with the deep democratic tradition that Martin King and A. Phillip Randolph and so many others, Ida B. Welles- Barnette, Ella Baker were a part of or will they become so full of bitterness, so full of a sense of revenge that they will re-enforce the same cycle of violence that's been coming at them, and that's the crucial question, and that's the question that I raise with my precious black brothers and sisters any time I'm with them. But I think it's a beautiful thing, because I mean arbitrary use of power when it comes to the police I mean if in a democracy we can't curtail that?

I mean if policemen can't be accountable for their actions, then what kind of democratic experiment do we really have? You know what I mean? You think for example that black president, black attorney general, black homeland security head in the cabinet, third biggest agency in the cabinet, a can't render safe a slice of his children vis-a-vis his police? Then what kind of democratic experiment are we really talking about? Those are brother Martin's questions, I think. And those are crucial ones.

Cornel West

Juliette Kayyem: Reverend Martin Luther King junior as a warrior of sorts, and that's a warrior for peace, as you write. 

Cornel West: Absolutely, absolutely.

Juliette Kayyem: Warrior's an interesting term because of course people think of it in this day and age as.. "the war on terror" as being militant, um and maybe uh that's how we should view the reverend has he um got engaged with these issues...?

Cornel West:  Absolutely. I mean it's an echo of the great essay by William James in 1910, the moral equivalence of war. How do we become Marshall yet feel our sense of being a warrior with a commitment to love, compassion, empathy, service, and a sense of sacrifice. I view Martin as a love warrior. The way I view John Coltrane, the way I view Nina Simone, a love warrior. And it means then you're a justice warrior.

In an age of extremism, Martin King said over and over again "I am an extremist, but I'm an extremist for love, of love. And willing to serve and die because of my love. And that you me is the best of black people, not just the best of American, but the best of the human spirit. It really is.

Cornel West

 

 

 


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