Wrestling with Dr. King’s Giant Triplets

January 27, 2020

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

This is the text of the talk that Matt Rothschild delivered in Spring Green, Wisconsin, on January 25, 2020, for that community’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

Martin Luther King has always been one of my heroes, and he was a hero to my mom, too. I have a picture of him up in my office. He’s an inspiration to me. He’s an inspiration to you. And he’s an inspiration to millions of people, here in this country and around the world.

And why is he such an inspiration?

Because he was a moral visionary.

Because he was a profound thinker.

And because he was a courageous leader.

Today, I want to use as a springboard Dr. King’s most visionary, most profound, and most courageous speech.

I’m not talking about his “I Have a Dream” speech.

And I’m not talking about his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

No, I’m talking about his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day of his assassination.

It’s in this speech that Dr. King ignored the advice of some of his staff and some of his influential supporters, who all wanted him to stay in his narrow lane of civil rights. But Dr. King would not confine himself. and decided it was time to break the silence on Vietnam.

So he denounced the war in no uncertain terms.

And he called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

And he said that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Well, my friends, here we are, 53 years later, and we’re getting closer to our spiritual death bed because we’re still spending more on the military than on programs of social uplift.

King also warned us that when “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Well, my friends, here we are, 53 years later, and profit motives and property rights are still exalted, and those giant triplets are more gargantuan than ever, and they appear to have us in a stranglehold.

And what I want to talk about today is how do we break that stranglehold?

How do we conquer those giant triplets?

And how do we, as King put it in his speech, “make democracy real”?

Before answering those big questions, let’s just consider for a second why Dr. King called racism and militarism and extreme materialism triplets?

Why are they so closely related?

Our system, here in America, has been built on racism since the earliest days, even before we were a nation. And it is racism today that still divides working class white Americans from working class black Americans and Latinos, and it’s not just the working class. Racism divides middle class white Americans from middle class black Americans and Latinos.

Look at that white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Those weren’t all working class whites. Those were Nazis in khakis.

Racism and militarism are practically Siamese twins. The United States has killed millions of people over the last 100 years, especially in the Third World, and their deaths were the result of white supremacy. In Vietnam, we were told by our leading general, William Westmordland, that 'The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner … Life is cheap in the Orient,” and so we killed three million people in IndoChina.

Or look at the 600,000 Iraqis that George W. Bush killed in the Iraq War, a war he dragged us into on a leash of lies. Who wept for those Iraqis? Who felt their pain? Their deaths didn’t make a dent on our conscience. It is racism and white supremacy that enable this mass murder.

And how does extreme materialism fit in here? Well, a certain segment of the population is getting very rich off of militarism and racism: Those who invest in the military industrial complex. Those who have stock in Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics and Raytheon. The ruling elite prospers off of militarism. And I don’t know if you know this, but their stocks all rose after Trump’s assassination of Suleimani, by the way.

So how do we take on these giant triplets, and how do we make democracy real?

I’m going to discuss a number of things we can do. Some have to do with pro-democracy reforms; others intersect with racism, materialism, and militarism.

Greased palm1. One thing we’ve got to do, if we’re going to make democracy real, is to overturn the Citizens United decision.

Last Tuesday marked the 10th anniversary of Citizens United, a decision that exalts the profit motive and property rights over people because it says corporations and other groups, as well as wealthy individuals, can spend unlimited amounts of money to elect the candidates of their choice.

And that’s what they’ve done.

25 of the richest people in America have spent $1.4 billion over the last 10 years on electioneering. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson spent the most, almost $300 million. Almost all of those big spenders were white, by the way, just as almost all the big spenders in Wisconsin are white.

And corporations have spent more than $200 million to elect candidates who will do their bidding, and the industry that has spent more than any other, while the planet burns, is the fossil fuel industry.

Here in Wisconsin, outside independent expenditures in our elections have leaped 5-fold in the last decade.

And in races for governor, that spending has gone up 1,700 percent since 2002!

As a result, your voice is drowned out.

You might respond that there are liberal millionaires writing big checks, and conservative millionaires writing big checks.

And you’d be right.

But our democracy’s not supposed to be a tug of war between a handful of liberal billionaires and a handful of conservative billionaires.

In a democracy, we’re all supposed to have an equal tug on the rope, and we obviously don’t. Most of us can’t even get near the rope!

Fortunately, here in Wisconsin, a great grassroots group called Wisconsin United to Amend is leading the way to change this. In 146 communities in Wisconsin, the people have passed resolutions or referendums saying they want to overturn Citizens United and proclaim once and for all that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech.

The Gerrymander2. Another thing we’ve got to do, if we’re going to make democracy real, is to ban gerrymandering and prison gerrymandering, in this country and in this state .

Nationally, unfortunately, the Roberts Court in June made this much more difficult. There was a perfect occasion for the U.S. Supreme Court to ban hyper-partisan gerrymandering because it was considering two cases at the same time: One from Maryland, where the Democrats had blatantly rigged the maps, and one from North Carolina, where Republicans had blatantly rigged the maps.

Rigging the maps is wrong, whether Democrats are doing it or Republicans are doing it.

So what did Chief Justice Robert say?

On the one hand, he said, and this is a direct quote, partisan gerrymandering is “incompatible with democratic principles.”

On the other hand, he said, and this is not a direct quote, “Go away, and don’t ever come back.” The federal courthouse doors are closed and locked. You can’t bring any cases on partisan gerrymandering to us ever again. You got to solve it at the state level.”

The good news here again is we’re trying to solve at the state level: 50 county boards, including Sauk County, have passed resolutions urging the State Legislature to ban gerrymandering and to give us independent, nonpartisan redistricting. Eight counties have passed referendums, including Sauk County, and 18 communities are going to vote on this in upcoming elections this year.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Iowa invented the wheel 40 years ago, and it doesn’t have a patent on it. There, career civil servants, and not the party in power, draws the maps, with specific criteria that prohibits them from using political demographic data to rig a map in favor of one party or another. It works great in Iowa, and it can work great here.

And it was sure nice to hear our governor, Tony Evers, the other day announce that he was going to sign an executive order establishing a people’s commission to draw the maps.

Vos has already pooh-poohed that, but the pressure is on. As some point soon, anyone running for office, including Robin Vos, is going to have to come out for nonpartisan redistricting or risk losing their job.

We also need to ban prison gerrymandering: the counting of prisoners not in their home communities but where the prison is located. If you’re a young black man living in Milwaukee, for instance, and you’re convicted of a crime and you’re sent to Waupun, you’re counted as a resident of Waupun. And Waupun gets more resources and representation than Milwaukee.

Voter Suppression3. The third thing we need to do make democracy real and fight racism at the same time is to end voter suppression.

This is an old, old tactic that goes back to the Era of Jim Crow and literacy tests and poll taxes. But it has risen again in the Modern Era. Back in 1980, Paul Weyrich, a leading social conservative, told a rightwing religious gathering that “I don’t want everybody to vote. leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting population goes down.”

And so the racists and the reactionaries have been up to their old tricks again.

We saw this up close in personal here in Wisconsin when Walker and the GOP-Legislature passed their so-called Voter ID law in 2011.

When it passed, Republican State Senators were described by Todd Albaugh, the chief of staff of Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, as being “giddy” that they were making it harder for minorities and young people to vote.

They’re still up to their old tricks, with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty pressing the Wisconsin Elections Commission to toss more than 200,000 voters off the rolls because they didn’t respond to a postcard from the Commission that was checking to see whether they moved. But the postcard didn’t notify them that if they didn’t respond, they’d be booted. This one is still in court, and there’s no telling how it’ll end up.

But there’s likely to be more tricks as we get closer to November, as a Trump campaign official bragged when he came to Wisconsin late last year, saying they were going to get aggressive in suppressing votes.

Wisconsin’s not alone: Two dozen other states have made it more difficult to vote.

We got to reverse this trend.

We need automatic voter registration, like a lot of progressive states have.

That’s one way to make democracy real and to fight racism.

flag prison4. Felon Reenfranchisement

Still another way to make democracy real and to fight racism is by felon reenfranchisement.

I’m sure Dr. King knew this little fact that I just learned a couple years ago. Here it is: At the turn of the 19 th and 20 th Century, a lot of southern states changed their state constitutions to criminalize a whole range of behaviors and actions, and they did with the express intent of “enshrining white supremacy,” as a leader of the Alabama State Constitution put it so bluntly.

Fortunately, Florida voters in November 2018 voted by overwhelming margins to reenfranchise the formerly incarcerate, though Republican legislators quickly passed a law requiring them to pay all court costs first. That one’s in court, too.

Here in Wisconsin, 45,000 formerly incarcerated individuals still can’t vote. That’s right: They’re not behind bars any more but they can’t vote because they’re still “on paper.” They’re still on probation or parole or extended supervision.

Now there’s a move afoot in Wisconsin, led by WISDOM and EXPO, to get a law passed that would change that.

And did you know that in two states, prisoners can vote right now from behind bars. Those two states are Maine and Vermont.

5. To make democracy real, and to fight poverty head on, we need to redistribute wealth and income.

Dr. King, in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech discussed what he called “the glaring contrast of extreme poverty and wealth.”

He’d be disgusted today if he knew that the three richest Americans – Bezos, Buffett, and Gates – have more wealth than the bottom half of all Americans. These three individuals hog more wealth than 160 million of our fellow citizens.

rich manHe’d be disgusted that the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, about 50% lower in real terms than it was when he gave his “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

He’d be disgusted that the median family has ten times the wealth of the media black family.

This is not only a moral indictment of our economy but it’s also an indictment of our democracy.

Because the simple obvious truth is that the poor people and people of modest or even middle class incomes do not have anywhere near the political power of the super-wealthy and the giant corporations.

Two scholars, Martin Gilens of UCLA and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, studied two decades’ worth of policies – more than 1,800 of them – to see how they get passed. And what they found out was startling: “The majority does not rule.” In fact, just about the only time the majority gets what it wants is when the top 1 percent and the business community want it, too. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work.

Right now, as Jimmy Carter said a couple years ago, we don’t have a democracy in our country. We have “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.”

Bernie talks about this oligarchy all the time.

So did Thomas Jefferson, when he said that “We must crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations.”

They weren’t in their crib when Teddy Roosevelt came along. He said, “We can’t have a real political democracy if we don’t have something approaching economic democracy.”

That’s what Dr. King was talking about when he referred to the “glaring contrast” between the poor and the wealthy, and that’s why he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign.

But more than just programmatic changes, we also need changes in attitude.

We need to pledge, as Dr. King implored us, to express “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

And what that means, in this moment, is to express our hostility to Donald Trump for:

--taking food stamps away from 700,000 impoverished adults.

--bragging about boosting military spending and bragging about assassination

--and giving a permission slip to every racist and sexist and homophobic and anti-Semitic person in America to be just as ugly and bigoted as they ever wanted to be.

Let me be clear: Donald Trump is the nearest thing to a fascist we’ve ever had in the Oval Office. He brags about being a nationalist and he traffics in racism. And nationalism and racism are the sperm and the egg of fascism.

We can’t let Trump destroy our democracy.

But we need to go beyond Trump, just as Dr. King went beyond Vietnam.

Because poverty and racism and militarism were here before Trump, and they’re going to be here after Trump.

And we need to express our hostility to them locally, and we need to express our hostility to them globally.

Locally, this means we need to let our voices be heard when:

--GOP legislators won’t provide funds for the homeless, even in winter.

--Whenever we see instances of racism here, we got to call it out, especially here in Wisconsin, which is the worst place to raise a black family. I got a whiff of it on Thursday. It was small thing; it wasn’t like an unarmed young black man was gunned down by police. But I was in the State Capitol for an Assembly committee hearing, and in the Assembly there’s a total of two black women representatives: Representative Shelia Stubbs and Representative LaKeshia Myers. Well, Myers was on this committee panel, and the white chairman, Representative Tyler Vorpagel, called her Rep. Stubbs. She’s on his committee, and he called her by the name of the only other black woman in the Assembly. I just found that outrageous!

--when the Pentagon wants to fly F-35s out of Truax field in Madison.

--when our elected officials support more Pentagon spending.

Globally, this means we need to start taking seriously the statement that “all people are created equal.”

If we do that, we won’t let people live in abject poverty or be victimized by war or drowned by global warming.

Today, what we desperately need is what Dr. King called, in his Beyond Vietnam speech, “a revolution of values.”

Here Dr. King demanded that we seek “worldwide fellowship beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation.”

He sounded a little bit like John Lennon there, except he didn’t mention religion because he’s a man of the cloth.

But it’s crucial todaythat we take Dr. King’s advice and move beyond “tribe, race, class, and nation.”

We seem further from that fellowship than we were 53 years ago.

The ties of tribe and race and class and nation have reasserted themselves with a vengeance.

Racism is back, in a big way.

Nationalism is back, in a big way.

And the upper class keeps getting its way, in a big way.

So we have our work cut out for us.

And let’s talk about that briefly before I close.

I could give you false comfort by facilely quoting the much-quoted line from Dr. King that the arc ofhistory is long but it bends toward justice.” But that’s my least favorite Martin Luther King quote because it almost assumes that there is a natural progression from injustice to justice.

And that’s not how I see history.

It’s certainly not a smooth arc; it’s a zigzag, with horrific lows – the Middle Passage, the genocide of Native Americans, the Belgian Congo, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Stalin, and Pol Pot. And of course there have been exhilarating highs: Emancipation, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, Mandela getting out of prison, the great nonviolent revolution for gay and lesbian rights.

But the zigs and zags aren’t predetermined. The ups and downs of history are the result of struggles: struggles won and struggles lost.

And Dr. King himself recognized this.

In his Beyond Vietnam speech, King insisted that we engage in what he called “the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”

I love that he added that adjective “beautiful” in there because there is beauty and joy and fulfillment in fighting the good fight, especially when you do it with friends I’ve been doing it for 40 years, and that’s the only way I can keep doing it, with friends.

In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. King urged us on.

We can’t say, “The odds are too great … The struggle is too hard.”

We can’t, as he pointedly put it, “send our deepest regrets.”

Nope, we’ve got to raise our voices.

We’ve got to enter the fray.

We’ve got to go out and vote.

And we’ve got to get in the streets.

And we’ve got to spark that revolution in values.

It’s a lot to ask, I know.

But it’s the only way we’re going to conquer those Giant Triplets.

It’s the only way we’re going to make democracy real.