“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
Martin Luther King. April 4, 1968.
Martin Luther King Day passed in the States as it usually does. George W. Bush, with no notion of how much trouble King would have caused for him had he been alive today, took the opportunity to encourage citizens to use their day off work to help others. “By helping someone in need, you are honouring the legacy of Martin Luther King.”
Of course, by persisting in his War on the Poor at home and his Vietnamesque foreign aggression in Iraq, Bush is dishonouring King’s legacy. But that doesn’t matter, because King’s not King no more. He’s King™. These aren’t new thoughts. 12 years ago, Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon lamented the “TV ritual” that is Martin Luther King Day. In their rather interesting piece The Martin Luther King You Don’t See On TV, they mention two things that caught my eye.
The first is the word “slain”. They begin by saying that the TV ritual involves perfunctory network news reports about “the slain civil rights leader”. The Voice of America story about Bush honouring MLK Day follows that to a tee:
Americans are marking a national holiday, Monday, commemorating the life and legacy of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. VOA’s Paula Wolfson reports this year, the focus is on community service.
Emphasis mine. Now, good ol’ Robert Anton Wilson – may he rest in peace, praise be upon him, etc. – had a sane explanation for this, but we’ve got some synchronicity going on. Because what I was going to write about today wasn’t Martin Luther King at all. It was the word “slain”. A quick Google search shows that 46 Kiwi news sources are reporting an NZ woman “slain” in London. 20 of those are smaller papers carrying the NZPA story about it. A few days ago, we were told all about the “car of slain woman” Doreen Reed.
Slay means simply “kill in a violent way”. “Murder” or “kill” would often be just as suitable. And of course, “slain” is a shorter word than “murdered”, so maybe that helps in how often it’s used. But it really seems to me that there’s something more emotive about the term “slain” than “killed” or “murdered”. It says something about the slayer, perhaps something savage or primal. Slain. To slay.
Anyway, I’m going to start keeping an eye out for the word. Not that I can really help it now.
Moving on. The second thing that was interesting about the article was the observation that everyone concentrates on MLK’s segregation work and almost no one draws attention to the last three years of his life:
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.”
One news source you can expect not to follow that norm is Democracy Now, which took the opportunity to focus on exactly those aspects of King that others relegate to the Memory Hole. Particularly interesting is the testimony of a black retired Memphis cop, who mentions that – unusually – no black police officers were assigned to protect King the day he was… slain.
Martin Luther King was a champion of the organised left in the States, incorporating both unionism and pacifism. Through a letter from exiled Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick Knaw Tahn), entitled In Search of the Enemy of Man, Martin Luther King was compelled to actively oppose America’s invasion of Indochina. Dick Meister wrote a few years ago about King’s union work, emphasising the reason he was in Memphis when he was killed.
Cliched as the speech is, it fucking rules: I Have a Dream