The Martin Luther King You Don't See on T.V.
The Martin Luther King You Don't See on T.V.
By Jeff Cohen and Salim Kujitawala /

It's become a TV ritual: Every year in mid-January, around the time of Martin Luther King's birthday, we get perfunctory network news reports about "the slain civil rights leader."

The remarkable thing about this annual review of King's life is that several years -- his last years -- are totally missing, as if flushed down a memory hole.

What TV viewers see is a closed loop of familiar file footage: King battling desegregation in Birmingham (1963); reciting his dream of racial harmony at the rally in Washington (1963); marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama (1965); and finally, lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis (1968).

An alert viewer might notice that the chronology jumps from 1965 to 1968. Yet King didn't take a sabbatical near the end of his life. In fact, he was speaking and organizing as diligently as ever.

Almost all of those speeches were filmed or taped. But they're not shown today on TV.


It's because national news media have never come to terms with what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for during his final years.

In the early 1960s, when King focused his challenge on legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media were his allies. Network TV and national publications graphically showed the police dogs and bullwhips and cattle prods used against Southern blacks who sought the right to vote or to eat at a public lunch counter.

But after passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation's fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without "human rights" -- including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow.

Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for "radical changes in the structure of our society" to redistribute wealth and power.

"True compassion," King declared, "is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

By 1967, King had also become the country's most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his "Beyond Vietnam" speech delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 -- a year to the day before he was murdered -- King called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, the U.S. was "on the wrong side of a world revolution." King questioned "our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America," and asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions "of the shirtless and barefoot people" in the Third World, instead of supporting them.

In foreign policy, King also offered an economic critique, complaining about "capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries."

You haven't heard the "Beyond Vietnam" speech on network news retrospectives, but national media heard it loud and clear back in 1967 -- and loudly denounced it. Time magazine called it "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." The Washington Post patronized that "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

In his last months, King was organizing the most militant project of his life: the Poor People's Campaign. He crisscrossed the country to assemble "a multiracial army of the poor" that would descend on Washington -- engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be -- until Congress enacted a poor people's bill of rights. Reader's Digest warned of an "insurrection."

King's economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America's cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its "hostility to the poor" -- appropriating "military funds with alacrity and generosity," but providing "poverty funds with miserliness."

How familiar that sounds today, more than a quarter-century after King's efforts on behalf of the poor people's mobilization were cut short by an assassin's bullet.


In Dr. King's book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, he wrote, "Black Power, in its broad and positive meaning, is a call to Black people to amass the political and economic strength to achieve their legitimate goals. No one can deny that the negro is in dire need of this kind of legitimate power."

Dr. King also wrote, "Black Power is also a call for the pooling of Black financial resources to achieve economic security. Through the pooling of such resources and the development of habits of thrift and techniques of wise investments, the negro will be doing his share to grapple with his problem of economic deprivation. If Black Power means the development of this kind of strength within the negro community, then it is a quest for basic, necessary, legitimate power."

It is important to note, these ideas that Dr. King had on Black politics and economics, are the same positions that Malcolm X communicated in his definition on the political and economic aspects of Black Nationalism. The reason this is important is the F.B.I. felt it would be necessary to eliminate Dr. King if he was to use Black Nationalist tactics. This can be seen through the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of the F.B.I.

COINTELPRO was and still is, a program designed to neutralize, disrupt and dismantle black organizations. On March 4th, 1968 the F.B.I released a classified document that stated:


"Prevent the rise of a "Messiah" who could unify and electrify the militant Black Nationalist movement. Malcolm X might have been such a "messiah," he is the martyr of the movement today. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and Elijah Muhammad all aspire to this position. Elijah Muhammad is less of a threat because of his age. King could be a real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed "obedience" to "white, liberal doctrines" (nonviolence) and embrace Black Nationalism."

On April 3rd, 1968 in Memphis Tennessee, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the speech that is now known as "I've Been to the Mountain Top." In his speech, he stated:


"...And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you. And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy-what is the other bread? Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart's bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven't been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying, they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right. But not only that, we've got to strengthen black institutions.

I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank-we want a 'bank-in' movement in Memphis. So go by the savings and loan association. I'm not asking you something we don't do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We're just telling you to follow what we're doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies in Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an 'insurance-in.' Now these are some practical things we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here."

This would become Kings last speech. The very next day, April 4th - which was exactly one month to the day after the COINTELPRO memo was released - Dr. King became a victim of American terrorism against Black people. He was shot in the neck by a white supremacist sniper under the direction of the United States Government. Why? As one can see, according to Dr. King's last speech and his writings, another side of Dr. King was developing. A side that began to embrace Black Nationalist tactics and strategies, as a means to achieve freedom, justice and equality for Black people.

Today, in this nation of immense wealth, the White House and Congress continue to accept the perpetuation of poverty - and so do most mass media. Perhaps it's no surprise that they tell us little about the last years of Martin Luther King's life. 

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The Martin Luther King You Don't See on T.V.