Dr. King Was A Man, “The Dreamer” Is A Zombie
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Gary Younge points out that King’s “I Have A Dream” speech wasn’t offered as the penultimate moment of his career till after his death. Those who offer it were the same corporate media honchos who first elevated, then slimed and slandered King the last year of his life. “The Dreamer” too is their construct, as far from the man who lived and died as an ordinary person from a brain-eating zombie.
I’m too young to have memories of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in DC. I was twelve, and preoccupied with whatever 12 year olds are worried about. But by the time Dr. King was murdered in Memphis I was a high school senior and full-blown political activist in circles that both respected and criticized Dr. King.
By the fall of ’67 I was helping organize black high school students in Chicago. Some veterans of SNCC, back from the South introduced us to a number of former soldiers and marines fresh back from the war in Vietnam.
The vets told us horrific stories of indiscriminate murders and atrocities for which they acknowledged a share of guilt, if only for not being able to effectively interfere. Out there in the mud and the stink and the fear and the killing they’d had few choices, none of them good. They had a point. After all, just how does one interfere with a bunch of heavily armed men in the midst of a killing spree, men with whom you will be living the next several months if you live at all? They also told us that despite the ferocity of the US assault on Vietnam, that Uncle Sam seemed to be losing the war. They said that several engagements for which the press claimed “light to moderate casualties” close to a third of their units were wounded or killed. They told us that at night sometimes they could hear the Vietcong shouting to them in English “black man, why are you fighting here instead of at home?” and much more.
They endured, they survived and they came home to tell these stories to, us only a couple years younger, so that unlike them, we could make moral and responsible choices on this side of the water, not in uniform and not in fear for our lives. We took those vets from high school to high school in the fall of 1967 to tell their stories to hundreds of black high school students on the south and west sides of Chicago. When the Vietnamese, taking the Pentagon by surprise, staged a January 1968 countrywide uprising on Tet, the lunar new year, seizing every provincial capital and the bottom few stories of the US embassy, it seemed to prove the vets, and the much maligned Dr. King too, right about that as well.
I remember partying the night President Johnson, politically exhausted by the war, announced he would not run for re-election. By the time Dr. King was murdered the following week, I had been paying close attention to his career and its meaning for a couple years.
I recall that when I first noticed Dr. King, the establishment media and many whites as well, made the man out to be a kind of living saint, an embodiment of moral conscience put to political action. Then, in the spring of 1967, Dr. King unequivocally denounced the war in Vietnam as unjust and immoral. He called the US government the greatest purveyor of violence on earth, and predicted that if nothing changed for the better we’d be marching to stop future murderous and unjust imperial wars in other places without end.
In the four decades since, I never saw anything like the instant turnaround the establishment media did on Dr. King. Overnight the chorus of praise and approbation turned into a perfect media storm of abuse and calumny. He was denounced as arrogant and ungrateful, traitorous and deceitful, a hypocritical dupe of the communists, and on and on. By the time of his death a year later Dr. King was one of the most reviled and hated figures in the nation.
When King was murdered, civil uprisings occurred in scores of US cities, and the establishment myth makers made a second 180 degree turn. While the smoke rose from burning cities you heard the first references to Dr. King not as a champion of economic justice, not as a moral voice against militarism and empire, not the fighter for a guaranteed minimum income for all, but as “The Dreamer.” Media figures began instructing us on “Dr. King’s Dream” – something nobody ever heard of before – as the reference point for our past struggle, our present predicament and our future agenda. Thus, as Gary Younge points out in his recent book, a new Dr. King was constructed
This new Dr. King didn’t call into question poverty. But he did have a dream. This new Dr. King stopped wondering, as the living King once did, why people pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water. But still, he had a dream. This new Dr. King never again mentioned the right of black workers to form unions and negotiate for their dignity and livelihoods. But this new guy, he had a dream.
The Dreamer as we know him today bears little resemblance to the man who was murdered in 1968. The Dreamer was constructed out of whole cloth by the same powerful media institutions which built King up in 1965 and 66, which denounced and slandered him 67 and 68, and made him a useful saint after his death. King never lived to be forty, so the Dreamer has already lived longer than the man, and for the powerful, has been far more useful. It’s no mistake that a single speech in 1963 commemorated this week, was chosen by the establishment to represent the man’s life work, and to negate it.
Being dead, King cannot object to his life’s work being summed up as “a dream.” The Dreamer will never question the integrity of Eric Holder, the first black attorney general, who fights to keep black people in prison  under the old 100 to 1 crack vs cocaine penalties three years after the enactment of a law reducing those penalties, and colludes in the false imprisonment of countless numbers of black defendants on illegally obtained evidence.
The Dreamer won’t remind us that the dire predictions of the living Dr. King, that we’d be marching to oppose wars without end, have come true, or that 45 years after his death the US is still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. And he certainly can’t raise a prophetic voice to call out the first black president to blow up black and brown babies in Somalia, Pakistan and who knows where else with cruise missiles, or the first black president to try to prosecute truth-telling government employees for espionage. “The Dreamer” won’t question the black president who has endorsed the bipartisan agendas of privatizing public education and slashing social security, who the president who, once in office, forgot his own promises to raise the minimum wage, to make it possible to organize unions, to deliver single payer health care and repeal the PATRIOT Act.
The Dreamer can’t dispute Obama’s twisted notion that poor people stalled “the movement” by using racism as an excuse to “give up on themselves.” The Dreamer can’t make his lips question the Obama administration’s increasing reliance on supermax prisons, universal surveillance, or bailouts for Wall Street.
The week spent commemorating :”the Dream” is a great way to forget the real past, ignore the real present and avoid responsibility for the future. It’s a great excuse to assemble stars and celebrities and politicians, to pretend that the rise and prominence of the black political class was the foreordained outcome of the historic Freedom Movement in which the real Dr. King lived, worked and died. It’s a great distraction from the fact that apart from their own careers, the black political class, right up to and including President Obama, have achieved very little in the way of substantive victories for our people in the last four decades.
For me, one of the lessons of Dr. King’s career and that of “the Dreamer”, who was born after the flesh and blood man was murdered, is the willingness of establishment media to rewrite history even as it’s being made, to blunt popular consciousness, to erase past sins, to stunt and limit our vision of the better world we know is possible. The Dreamer is a zombie, immortalized in a monument paid for by Wal-Mart, Boeing, Bank of America, British Petroleum and other corporate criminals. The folks I ran with four decades ago, and run with today disagreed with Dr. King, but we admire him. We never had much use though, for “The Dreamer.”
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report. He lives and works in Marietta GA, and is a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party. Reach him through this site’s contact page, or at bruce.dixon (at)blackagendareport.com.