By: Gus Navarro
On April 4th, 1967, Dr. King gave one of his most important speeches: “Beyond Vietnam.” A year to the day before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee he spoke from New York City about the hegemonic implications of the Vietnam War and the racism, materialism and militarism embedded within the political, social and economic ethos of the United States.
This past Monday we celebrated the life and times of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This day is set up to honor MLK and all he did for the Civil Rights Movement that swept across the legally segregated south and the highly discriminatory north in the 1950’s and 60’s. He was involved in organizing mass movements against the segregation of American style apartheid known as Jim Crow throughout the deep south in places such as Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. King, inspired by the Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi, called for non-violent protests and political action in all of the movements he took part in. Drawing on his background as a preacher, King is also remembered for his oratory skills.
Delivered in 1963 in Washington, D.C., King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is perhaps his most famous. He talks about the hope that one day there were will be a unification among blacks and whites in the United States. Much of MLK day talk is centered around the dream of racial equality and the progress of race relations over the past 40 years. This is an important narrative that should be celebrated and remembered. There is no question that progress has been made since fearless individuals of more than one race rallied around issues of equality. However, racism didn’t end after King’s speech in 1963 and things weren’t all good after the ratification of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as history textbooks may have you believe. In fact, following King’s life after 1963 up until his assassination in 1968, a more complex picture of the man behind the movement emerges. His concept of civil rights was that it went beyond race relations in the United States and held significance around the world. The attempt here is not to downplay the horrors of Jim Crow in anyway. However, King’s complex notion of civil rights is not addressed in our ritual public discourse about the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King himself, and it absolutely needs to be.
On April 4th, 1967, Dr. King gave one of his most important speeches: “Beyond Vietnam.” A year to the day before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee he spoke from New York City about the hegemonic implications of the Vietnam War and the racism, materialism and militarism embedded within the political, social and economic ethos of the United States. In this groundbreaking talk, King called for a “revolution of values” that was centered on changing the way the United States operated at home and abroad. With an eloquence and honesty that few others posses he called out the United States and it’s role as a hegemonic force around the globe. This was a bold move on his part and many within his circle of advisors thought of this speech as a tactical error. Why rock the boat and alienate themselves from the United States government, specifically President Lyndon B. Johnson, after winning a huge battle in 1964?
The fact that Martin Luther King gave “Beyond Vietnam” shows the complexity of what has become known as “civil rights.” First, it went beyond the classic blacks vs. whites narrative commonly thought of during the 50’s and 60’s. Second, King connects the notion of Civil Rights to the need for an economic system based on something other than capitalism. Third, the argument is made that military expenditures of the United States prevent the installation of meaningful social programs that would combat things such as poverty and lack of education. These are concepts that continue to hold true and are relevant to this day. This speech, possibly more than any other, reveals the depth of Dr. King and the true nature and meaning of Civil Rights. Civil Rights is about working to make it better for the oppressed at home and abroad. Dr. King understood this but why don’t we talk about it? Because he was demanding more from the United States and challenging it’s policies on the domestic and international stage.
When thinking about history and influential figures such as MLK, do not allow media outlets, owned by powerful corporations, and school textbooks to manufacture dreams and water down the need for activism. Instead, dig deeper for answers. There is always so much more to the story. Research. Be critical. Ask questions. Find out about the history of activism and fight for social justice. For example, look more critically at Nelson Mandela, his thoughts on Marxism, relationship with Fidel Castro and the central role he played in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Who were these figures in history, what were they saying and why?
Hip-hop is a great place to learn more. Listen to Dead Prez if you want to get a sense of who Malcom X, Marcus Garvey and Huey P. Newton were, wrote about and stood for. Is Abraham Lincoln truly one of our greatest presidents? Tupac may say different. You can hear the late activist Amiri Baraka recite one of his poems on The Roots’ Phrenology from 2002. Ever heard of Steve Biko? A Tribe Called Quest has you covered. The Blue Scholars address the very point of this article in their song, “Solstice: Reintroduction.”
Hip-hop is the place to begin an in-depth investigation of history and world issues because there are artists from just about every walk of life represented. There are artists, musicians, dancers and scholars from every race, gender and creed that use hip-hop as a way of making sense of their lived experience. This creates a culture that is as complex and diverse as it gets. There is an element of relatability in that everyone is actively engaged in processing life through a hip-hop lense. Hip-hop allows you to dig deeper.
So what is the relevance of this last bit about hip-hop and MLK’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech? The relevance is found within how people process information, study history and think about cultures that are perceived as different. It is easy to accept the narrative around Martin Luther King in 1963. It is another thing altogether to find out more about the history and complex values of Martin Luther King. His work fighting for racial equity and social justice around the world was a threat to the American power structure and way of life that was racist in nature and created by wealthy land-owning white males. The same can be said about hip-hop culture. The easy criticism of hip-hop is that all it is about is guns, violence, money and misogyny. I am not saying that does not exist, however that barely scratches the surface. If research is done, hip-hop culture emerges as one of thought, consciousness, love, revolution and humanization. Something I think Dr. King could get behind.