Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.
This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes as the U.S. is moving toward
war in Iraq. As media prepare to air retrospectives on King, we thought it
would be a good time to circulate this 1995 column by FAIR founder Jeff
Cohen and FAIR associate Norman Solomon.
Media Beat, January 4, 1995
The Martin Luther King You Don't See on TV
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
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
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
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
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
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
As 1995 gets underway, 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.
Media Beat is Norman Solomon's weekly syndicated column on media and
politics. Until 1996, the column was co-written by FAIR's founder, Jeff
Cohen (Cohen no longer works at FAIR). For more Media Beat columns, visit:
You can listen to some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s anti-war speeches,
including the Riverside Church speech, at the National Radio Project's