Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Real Martin Luther King Jr. and Palestinian Hip-Hop

"When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the U.S., Hip-Hop moguls and rappers are organizing a "peace week" in honor of Dr. King., confusing his tactic of non-violence for his ideology. Amazing how disobedience is completely dropped from Dr. King's philosophy. Few, if any of these people are activists working toward the radical egalitarian aims Dr. King was killed for. In fact, many of them like Russell Simmons directly contradict his core principles through their life-styles and actions.

While most African-Americans have allowed themselves to accept this watered-down version of Dr. King and the black freedom movement, you can find the essence of his values around the world. Ironically, those values are in action in a Lebanese refugee camp, where Palestinian exiles express messages of social justice and self determination through Hip-Hop. Their rap messages often cover themes of resistance to repression, discrimination, corruption and occupation---just like Dr. King.

One of the young rappers remarked upon how their art form lay grounded in the every day struggles of Palestinian youth.

"If I didn't have hip-hop, I would only be thinking about having fun and in the camps where there is often no electricity, where there is no library, and no money to go somewhere else, I would most likely sit with my friends in the street smoking argileh all day wasting my time. Hip-hop made me. If you want to be a good rapper, you need to write good lyrics, and so you need to read and get an education. I know so much more about life, because I have been expressing my self and writing. Hip-hop is a school,"

Although, Hip-Hop culture originated in the black ghettos of the U.S. , it too has been co-opted by the same forces that seek to destroy Dr. King's radical legacy. Meanwhile, oppressed youth around the world continue to use rap music as a vehicle for social and economic change. Much of my interests in the third world stem from a belief that they have much to teach America about human rights and dignity. This Dr. Martin Luther King day, I will be looking here for examples of his core principles in action.

In reality, the essence of Dr. King's message was for the radical redistribution of wealth, an end to U.S. imperialism throughout the world and dismantling of institutional racism. These ends far exceed both individual liberty and equality before the law.

A few quotes from the man himself,

On Militarism
"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom."

"America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

"When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
On Economic Inequality/Institutional Racism
"These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light."

"And one day we must ask the question, Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society..."

"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
Along with Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King is the West's most 'acceptable' example of black resistance to oppression. The only problem is this neutered version of Dr. King's teachings defames his core message and the changes he fought to bring about before his murder.


  1. Thanks for this timely reminder and keep up the writing! Most refreshing. However, I disagree slightly with your initial analysis. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that MLK Jr.'s nonviolence was tactic and not ideology. I don't think a reading of the corpus of MLK's speeches supports this analysis, even the more radical speeches given after his public opposition to the Vietnam War became known. In substance, though, you are correct in getting at the selective and sanitized presentation of King necessary to turn him into a hero exemplifying supposedly 'American' values, when as you point out his message was much more powerful and more universal than the ongoing narrative of American exceptionalism could stomach. Here is an excerpt from one of his later speeches:

    Of course you may say to me: "This is not practical. Life is a matter of getting even, of hitting back, of dog eat dog." "Maybe in some distant utopia", you say, "that ideal will work, but not in the hard, cold world in which we live." My only answer is that mankind has followed the so-called practical way for a long time now, and it has led to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of individuals and communities that surrendered to hate and violence. I'm sure that many of you have read Frantz Fanon's book The Wretched of the Earth. Toward the end he says: "So comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe . . . by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her. Humanity is waiting for something other from us than such an imitation, which would almost be an obscene caricature. If we want to turn Africa into a new Europe . . . and America into a new Europe, let us leave the destiny of our countries to Europeans. They will know how to do it better than the most gifted of us. But if we want humanity to advance, to step further, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries." And then he moves on toward the end to say: "For Europe, for ourselves, and for humanity, comrade, we must turn over a new leaf. We must work out new concepts and try to set afoot a new man."

    These are brave and challenging words, and I'm happy that young black men and women are quoting them, but the problem is that Fanon (and those who quote his words) are seeking to work out new concepts and set afoot a new man with the willingness to imitate old concepts of violence. Is there not a basic contradiction here? Violence has been the inseparable twin of materialism—the hallmark of its grandeur. This is the one thing about modern civilization that I do not want to imitate. Humanity is waiting for something other than a blind imitation of the past. If we want truly to advance a step further, if we want to turn over the new leaf and really set a new man afoot, we must begin to turn mankind away from the long and desolate night of violence. May it not be that the new man the world needs is the non-violent man? Longfellow said: "In this world a man must either be an anvil or the hammer." We must be hammers shaping a new society rather than anvils molded by the old. This not only will make us new men but will give us a new kind of power. It will not be Lord Acton's image of power that tends to corrupt, the absolute power that corrupts absolutely. It will be power infused with love and justice that will change dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. I must say to each of you that I have made my decision."

  2. Respectfully, I believe, based on my reading of both King and his idol, Gandhi, that they both employed nonviolence as a tactic rather than as an ideology.

    King, in his speeches, implied numerous times that either the whites would have to comply with the blacks' request peacefully or would have to face the violent brunt of the masses of blacks who were getting more and more violent.

    It is well-known among scholars of the civil-rights era that King and his supporters would not have accomplished much without the more radical (and potentially, trouble-making) black groups. This shouldn't be surprising. A look at the history of the Indian Indepedence movement shows that the British analogously feared that if Gandhi died as a result of his hunger strikes, the Indians would have violently revolted against the colonizers.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. Definitely, food for thought. From my perspective Martin Luther King believed in non-violent civil disobedience, not non-violence. It is one thing to ask people to challenge the system directly without killing people and quite another to ask them to passively accept oppression. Toward the end of his life, when confronted with the more militant sectors of the black freedom movement, King said "Without justice there can be no peace. He who accepts evil is as much involved with it as he who helps to perpetrate it." Unlike the hippies of the time, King was not merely asking for peace, he was demanding social justice. He believed that non-violent civil disobedience was a more effective strategy than armed resistance in achieving it. But he new that if the establishment failed to respond then armed struggle was inevitable. Dr. King was created by a movement for human rights and self-determination. He never saw himself as more significant or morally superior to it. Dr. King's ideas evolved as the movement its self evolved. I agree that Dr. King valued peace but to place it as the core of his ideology would be to misread him and the black freedom movement that birthed him.

  4. First some brief definitions that I hope will make my point clearer:

    One common definition of ideology (the one I was using) is: a comprehensive vision for action, a set of principles that guide one's direction in the world.

    According to Webster's dictionary, a tactic is "a device for accomplishing an end."

    The word that you used, Austin, nonviolent civil disobedience or nonviolent resistance, is helpful in getting at the root of the meaning that Gandhi used to describe his movement: satagrayha. And if we can understand Gandhi's thought it will help us to understand King's, since Gandhi was such an influence on King.
    @Law Experts:
    I admit my understanding of Gandhi is based ONLY on what I read in Satagrayha in South Africa, but if that book can be taken as representative of Gandhi's thought, then it is virtually impossible to find anywhere where Gandhi argued for nonviolent resistance merely as a tactic. In fact he was very adamant that it had to be a total spiritual state of mind. I will accept that both Gandhi and King considered it as ideology AND tactic.

    I think some of the confusion comes when it comes to outcomes. The things you say about King's predictions and the success of the independence movement in India are true, but that doesn't really address my point.

    There were many in the civil rights movement who DID view nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic. Austin is right, we shouldn't fetishize King's commitment to nonviolence as the only viable alternative. But I am absolutely adamant that for MLK Jr., a belief in the power of satagrayha was at the root of his whole worldview, ideology, and attitude towards struggle.