Dr. King Spanks Obama: Part 3

June 18, 2009

Dr. King - ObamaIn the days ahead we must not consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character. We must begin to ask, “Why are there forty million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence?” Why has our nation placed itself in the position of being God’s military agent on earth, and intervened recklessly in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic? Why have we substituted the arrogant undertaking of policing the whole world for the high task of putting our own house in order? All these questions remind us that there is a need for a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society. For its very survival’s sake, America must re-examine old presuppositions and release itself from many things that for centuries have been held sacred. For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property- and profit-centered. Our government must depend more on its moral power than on its military power.” [1]

Such was the advice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967. But forty years after King was assassinated by his own government, [2] people are still asking the same questions: “Why is the US making itself impotent fighting wars that have nothing whatsoever to do with its security, wars that are, in fact, threatening its security?” [3] At the 23rd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday Celebration in San Francisco attendees were asked, “What would Dr. King want to say to Barack Obama?” [4] But the best answers to this question can be found in Dr. King’s own book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? This is the third installment of a continuing series which examines Dr. King’s responses to the world around him forty years ago and explores their relevance in the world today. Links to previous installments of this series appear in the notes at the end of this article.

In a recent interview with Amy Goodman, Howard Zinn said if Obama would only listen to Dr. King, “he would be a very different president than he’s turning out to be so far. We have to point to what Obama said in the course of the campaign, when he said we not only have to get out of Iraq, we have to get out of the mindset that brought us into Iraq. Obama, himself, has not gotten out of that mindset yet. And I think we, the people, have to speak to him about that.” [5]

How?” asks Amy Goodman. “Ethical appeals alone will not bring about justice“, insists Dr. King. Such appeals “must be undergirded by some form of constructive coercive power.” [1] The mere existence of a parasitic ruling class makes this necessary, because their compulsion to passively siphon income away from the productive activities of others directly opposes the interests of every other life form on the planet. [6] This is precisely the “mindset”, referenced above by Howard Zinn, which must be eradicated from society altogether. In fact, Shamus Cooke recently argued, “Obama cannot be ‘pressured’ into doing the right thing. He’s surrounded himself with people representing the big corporations and banks, entities that are intrinsically anti-worker. Labor must now, more than ever, take an independent stance in defending their interests.” [7] But if I correctly understand Cooke’s passion for self-emancipation of the working class, then I see no conflict at all between his views and King’s call for extended (if not permanent) disruption of business-as-usual.

According to Dr. King, if negotiations break down, the next step of “real power” consists of a massive call for economic withdrawal — and accompanying demonstrations if necessary. [1] Contrary to popular belief amongst contemporary “progressives”, marching in the streets with picket signs is *not* nonviolent direct-action. Instead, public demonstrations are more effectively an announcement of ethical appeals that have been previously “undergirded by some form of constructive coercive power“. The purpose of a direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it cannot be ignored. [8] “We don’t have to argue with anybody… We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, ‘God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.’” [9] Immense as this strategy might seem, it was much simpler to execute in 1967 than it is today. In those days, bus seats, lunch counters and drinking fountains were not the only targets of racial segregation in the US South. Turns out the business community was also sharply divided between black and white. So with boycotts and sit-ins and freedom rides, blacks effectively leveraged those divisions to their own advantage, ironically against racial segregation.

Likewise, progressive activists and environmentalists have rightly insisted for decades that American consumers must boycott multinational conglomerates by supporting local business communities. But this highlights an urgent need for creative and collaborative innovations amongst local firms to provide genuine consumer incentives and to reclaim a competitive advantage within their own regional markets. Just as Dr. King leveraged the black business community against the white, there is today a pressing need for communities to leverage the cooperative against the corporate, the local against the global. This is not an impossible campaign, but as Gary Dorrien explains, it does require an aggressive expansion of the cooperative sector in the United States supported by a network of publicly owned banks. [10] This campaign could certainly facilitate intermediate aims like negotiations with President Obama and increased public awareness. But the ultimate goal, as Dr. King suggests, is permanent restructuring of the economic system. [1] Here again, the inherent injustice of the existing system could ironically play a strategic role in establishing justice.

For example, Argentine workers have reoccupied 1,200 factories (and counting) that were slated for closure after their employers received massive government bailouts. It’s important to note that their extended success seems to stem from an almost unanimous level of community support. But even so, workers must guard those factories with sling-shots 24/7 from their government and the previous owners. [11] While it might seem more sensible to buy the factories from the previous owners at discount prices, it also seems ridiculous for them to seek financing from the same institutions that created the disaster to begin with. [10] So the Argentine worker cooperatives must eventually collaborate to organize an investment fund administered by publicly owned banks that are democratically controlled by the cooperatives and their communities.

According to David Schweickart, the outstanding structural innovation of the Mondragon Group in Spain is its “creation of a network of support institutions — above all, the Caja Laboral Popular, the ‘working people’s bank,’ which interacts with the productive enterprises in various ways: providing capital for expansion, providing technical and financial advice, assisting in the transfer of workers from one enterprise to another, assisting in the creation of new firms.” [12] John Logue’s recent article outlines more recent developments in this regard: “The Spanish system encourages employees who have worked together, but been laid off, to start new businesses that preserve the social capital built over years, capitalize the new firms with lump sum unemployment compensation and/or severance pay, and provide substantial support in the first several years of business. This is obviously not a panacea for the ills of modern economies, but it has helped to create one thousand or so new employee-owned businesses employing 13,000 in a region with the population of greater Cleveland with a survival rate that we can only envy.” [13]

With similar opportunities, however, and with far more freedom than any other nation in the world, workers in the United States seem reluctant to act in their own behalf. To withstand the advancing siege of corporate globalization, American workers and consumers will need to literally become economic terrorists, well organized and highly trained in new guerilla tactics and ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice. The brief sit-in at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors looked rather promising. But instead of restarting the machines and reorganizing cooperatively, the workers settled for severance and vacation pay — only to be rehired at minimum wage a couple months later by a new owner. Shamus Cooke reports even worse news from General Motors: “Obama’s autoworker precedent will encourage other companies to destroy union contracts via bankruptcy; the stage is being set for a colossal attack on the American working class. Already wage cuts are being implemented throughout the U.S., alongside massive unemployment — Obama’s technique is simply a way to hasten the process, so that the speed and scope of the recession is equally matched by reductions in wages and benefits. In order for [corporations] to stay ‘viable’ on the world market, they are slashing wages and benefits, led by Obama and the Wall Street insiders among his administration.” [7]

The interests of workers and the interests of investors are directly opposed. Workers in the United States and elsewhere are under attack. This is not a drill. So for labor to take an independent stance in defending their own interests, as Cooke insists, deliberate expansion of the cooperative sector in the United States seems an essential first step. American workers who are serious about self-emancipation will begin to reorganize the workplace cooperatively, and to establish a supporting network of publicly owned banks. There’s nothing new or unpatriotic about these ideas. According to American icons like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, privatization of the banks and the money supply was the worst thing that could possibly happen to this or any other nation. Furthermore, hundreds of worker cooperatives are already thriving in the United States and elsewhere. Their success rate for new startups is much higher than corporate business structures, they typically operate with greater efficiency, they are more responsive to the interests of local communities, and they tend to be far more sustainable in times of economic crisis.

Moreover, at the bottom (or the “trough”) of the current economic crisis lies a rare and fleeting opportunity for the cooperative sector to purchase abandoned factories and equipment at discount prices, to put an army of unemployed people back to work in coop academies, and to beat corporate America at its own game. The Web site for the Worker Cooperative Credit Union provides a wealth of information with regard to both internal and external cooperative financing. [14] But the one possibility not listed there is for existing cooperatives to pool their surplus into a common fund for the specific purpose of expanding the cooperative sector overall. In his theoretical model for “Economic Democracy”, this is what David Schweickart refers to as a “capital assets tax”. But in the real world today, this sort of financial collaboration amongst existing worker cooperatives could establish a network of publicly owned banks to immediately expand the cooperative sector, to empower individuals and strengthen community relationships, and to effectively challenge multinational corporations at the community level. “Now these are some practical things we can do” says Dr. King. “We begin the process of building a greater economic base, and at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts.” [9] I’d like to at least hope somebody within the cooperative movement is beginning to think and act along these lines. Meanwhile, here is more from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:

Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
Excerpts from chapter 4

Living with the daily ugliness of slum life, educational castration and economic exploitation, some ghetto dwellers now and then strike out in spasms of violence and self-defeating riots. A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard. It is the desperate, suicidal cry of one who is so fed up with the powerlessness of his cave existence that he asserts that he would rather be dead than ignored. As long as people are ignored, as long as they are voiceless, as long as they are trampled by the iron feet of exploitation, there is the danger that they, like little children, will have their emotional outbursts which will break out in violence in the streets. For the past year I have been living and working in the ghettos of Chicago. There the problems of poverty and despair are graphically illustrated. The phone rings daily with countless stories of man’s inhumanity to man, and I find myself struggling constantly against the depression and hopelessness which the hearts of our cities pump into the spiritual bloodstream of our lives.

This is truly an island of poverty in the midst of an ocean of plenty, for Chicago now boasts the highest per capita income of any city in the world. But you would never believe it looking out of the windows of my apartment in the slum of Lawndale. From this vantage point you see only hundreds of children playing in the streets, and when you go out and talk to them you see the light of intelligence glowing in their beautiful dark eyes. Then you realize their overwhelming joy because someone has simply stopped to say hello; for they live in a world where even their parents are often forced to ignore them. In the tight squeeze of economic pressure, their mothers and fathers both must work; indeed, more often than not, the father will hold two jobs, one in the day and another at night. With the long distances ghetto parents must travel to work and the emotional exhaustion that comes from the daily struggle to survive in a hostile world, they are left with too little time or energy to attend to the emotional needs of their growing children.

Too soon you begin to see the effects of this emotional and environmental deprivation. The children’s clothes are too skimpy to protect them from the Chicago wind, and a closer look reveals the mucus in the corners of their bright eyes, and you are reminded that vitamin pills and flu shots are luxuries which they can ill afford. The “runny noses” of ghetto children become a graphic symbol of medical neglect in a society which has mastered most of the diseases from which they will too soon die. There is something wrong in a society which allows this to happen. When a man is able to make his way through the maze of handicaps and get just one foot out of the jungle of poverty and exploitation, he is subject to the whims of the political and economic giants, which move in impersonally to crush the little flower of success that has just begun to bloom. Here the democratic process breaks down, for the rights of the individual voter are impossible to organize without adequate funds, while the business community supplies the existing political machine with enough funds to organize massive campaigns and control mass media. [6]

And yet there are times when life demands the perpetual doing of the impossible. The life of our slave forebears is eternal testimony to the ability of men to achieve the impossible. So, too, we must embark upon this difficult, trying and sometimes bewildering course. With a dynamic will, we must transform our minus into a plus, and move on aggressively through the storms of injustice and the jostling winds of daily handicaps, toward the beaconing lights of fulfillment. Our dilemma is serious and our handicaps are real. But equally real is the power of a creative will and its ability to give us the courage to go on “in spite of.”

There is always the understandable temptation to seek negative and self-destructive solutions. Some seek a passive way out by yielding to the feeling of inferiority; or by allowing the floodgates of defeat to open with an avalanche of despair; or by dropping out of school; or by turning to the escape valves of narcotics and alcohol. Others seek a defiant way out. Through antisocial behavior, overt delinquency and gang warfare, they release their pent-up vindictiveness on the whole society. Meanness becomes their dominating characteristic. They trust no one and do not expect others to trust them. Still others seek to deal with the dilemma through the path of isolation. They have the fantasy of a separate black state or a separate black nation within the nation. This approach is the most cynical and nihilistic of all, because it is based on a loss of faith in the possibilities of American democracy. In spite of uncertainties and vicissitudes we must develop the courage to confront the negatives of circumstance with the positives of inner determination.

The Pharaohs had a favorite and effective strategy to keep their slaves in bondage: keep them fighting among themselves. The divide-and-conquer technique has been a potent weapon in the arsenal of oppression. But when slaves unite, the Red Seas of history open and the Egypts of slavery crumble. This plea for unity is not a call for uniformity. There must always be healthy debate. There will be inevitable differences of opinion. The dilemma that [we] confront is so complex and monumental that its solution will of necessity involve a diversified approach. But [we] can differ and still unite around common goals. This clear onward drive to make full and creative use of the opportunities already available to us will be of immeasurable value in helping us to deal constructively with our agonizing dilemma.

We must get rid of the false notion that there is some miraculous quality in the flow of time that inevitably heals all evils. There is only one thing certain about time, and that is that it waits for no one. If it is not used constructively, it passes you by. Equally fallacious is the notion that ethical appeals and persuasion alone will bring about justice. This does not mean that ethical appeals must not be made. It simply means that those appeals must be undergirded by some form of constructive coercive power.

Our course of action must lie neither in passively relying on persuasion nor in actively succumbing to violent rebellion, but in a higher synthesis that reconciles the truths of these two opposites while avoiding the inadequacies and ineffectiveness of both. With the person relying on persuasion, we must agree that we will not violently destroy life or property; but we must balance this by agreeing with the person of violence that evil must be resisted. By so doing we avoid the nonresistance of the former and the violent resistance of the latter. With nonviolent resistance, we need not submit to any wrong, nor need we resort to violence in order to right a wrong. If one is in search of a better job, it does not help to burn down the factory. If one needs more adequate education, shooting the principal will not help. If housing is the goal, only building and construction will produce that end. To destroy anything, person or property, cannot bring us closer to the goal that we seek.

So far, we have had constitutional backing for most of our demands for change, and this has made our work easier, since we could be sure of legal support from the federal courts. Now we are approaching areas where the voice of the Constitution is not clear. We have left the realm of constitutional rights and we are entering the area of human rights. The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income. And yet, in a nation which has a gross national product of $750 billion a year, it is morally right to insist that every person have a decent house, an adequate education and enough money to provide basic necessities of one’s family. Achievement of these goals will be a lot more difficult and require much more discipline, understanding, organization and sacrifice. Mass nonviolent action will continue to be one of the most effective tactics of the freedom movement. Nothing could prove more erroneous than to demobilize at this point. It was the mass-action movement that engendered the changes of the decade, but the needs which created it are not yet satisfied.

But mass nonviolent demonstrations will not be enough. They must be supplemented by a continuing job of organization. To produce change, people must be organized to work together in units of power. These units must be political, as in the case of voters’ leagues and political parties; they may be economic, as in the case of groups of tenants who join forces to form a union, or groups of the unemployed and underemployed who organize to get jobs and better wages. More and more, the civil rights movement will have to engage in the task of organizing people into permanent groups to protect their own interests and produce change in their behalf. This task is tedious, and lacks the drama of demonstrations, but it is necessary for meaningful results.

In the days ahead we must not consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character. We must begin to ask, “Why are there forty million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence?” Why has our nation placed itself in the position of being God’s military agent on earth, and intervened recklessly in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic? Why have we substituted the arrogant undertaking of policing the whole world for the high task of putting our own house in order? All these questions remind us that there is a need for a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society. For its very survival’s sake, America must re-examine old presuppositions and release itself from many things that for centuries have been held sacred. For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property- and profit-centered. Our government must depend more on its moral power than on its military power. [15]



[1] King, Dr. Martin Luther (1968). “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?”. New York, NY: Beacon Press, pgs 128-129, 133. ISBN 0807005711

[2] Douglass, James W. (March 15. 2000). “The King Assassination: After Three Decades, Another Verdict”. Christian Century.

[3] Roberts, Paul Craig. (May 14, 2009). “Who Rules America?”. Information Clearing House.

[4] Staff. (February 02, 2009). “What would Dr. King want to say to Barack Obama?”. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

[5] Zinn, Howard. (May 13, 2009). “Howard Zinn: I Wish Obama Would Listen to MLK”. Media with Conscience. Democracy Now!.

[6] Chandler, David. (2009). “Tour of the US Income Distribution: The L-Curve”. David Chandler.
This link appears, not only in the main body of the article, but also in the excerpts from Dr. King’s book because it most clearly illustrates his discussion of a “break down” in the “democratic process”, which I view as an economically skewed distribution of decision-making power.

[7] Cooke, Shamus. (May 22, 2009). “On Obama’s Chopping Block: It’s The Turn of General Motors”. Global Research.

[8] King, Dr. Martin Luther. (April 16, 1963). “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]“. African Studies Center – University of Pennsylvania.

[9] King, Dr. Martin Luther. (April 3, 1968). “”I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”. speech in support of the striking sanitation workers at Mason Temple in Memphis, TN the day before he was assassinated. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

[10] Dorrien, Gary. (05/18/2008). “A Case For Economic Democracy”. Novakeo.

[11] Goodman, Amy. (May 15, 2009). “Argentine Journalist Sergio Ciancaglini on “Sin Patron: Stories from Argentina’s Worker-Run Factories”. Democracy Now!.

[12] Schweickart, David. (1996). “Against Capitalism”. Westview Press. pgs 65-66. ISBN 0813331137.

[13] Logue, John. (January 19, 2009). “Can we start new employee-owned companies in Ohio on a mass scale? Tools from Spain”. OpEd News.

[14] Leung, Mike. (June 12, 2009). Worker Cooperative Credit Union.

[15] King, Dr. Martin Luther (1968). “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?”. New York, NY: Beacon Press, excerpts from chapter 4. ISBN 0807005711

David Kendall lives in WA and deeply cares about the future of our world.

David Kendall is a regular columnist for

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