One year before he was assassinated, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flirted with a run for President of the United States. A group of leftist and liberal leaders that included the socialist Norman Thomas had urged King to challenge President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 on a third-party ticket. They had hoped the famous pediatrician and anti-war activist Dr. Benjamin Spock would be his running mate.
When King spoke in Berkeley in May 1967, students held homemade signs with the slogan: “King/Spock in ’68,” according to Rolling Stone. And when he came to the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago in August, the purpose was to essentially deliver the keynote address at a political convention — the National Conference on New Politics.
The Berkeley address, “The Three Evils of Society,” would turn out to be one of King’s most prescient, and perhaps his most overlooked. You probably didn’t see any politician tweet an excerpt of the speech in which King lacerated war-mongering Democrats like Johnson and hateful Republicans like Barry Goldwater.
King’s speech is also perhaps his most pessimistic, his darkest, his most prophetic.
“We have come because our eyes have seen through the superficial glory and glitter of our society and observed the coming of judgment,” King said. “Like the prophet of old, we have read the handwriting on the wall.”
King added that, just four years after broadcasting his dream of a country beyond racism, “the disillusionment and betrayal” was hard to escape. “Our hopes have been blasted and our dreams have been shattered.”
In his novel, American War, Omar El Akkad imagines a Second American Civil War, which in his frighteningly realistic dystopian fiction takes place between 2074 and 2095.
“The primary cause of the war was Southern resistance to the Sustainable Future Act, a bill prohibiting the use of fossil fuels anywhere in the United States,” Akkad writes.
The journalist and lawyer William F. Pepper — whose articles uncovering the U.S. carpet-bombing of South Vietnam in 1966 had helped solidify King’s anti-war stance — connects the overlapping crises of fossil fuel addiction, racism and wealth inequality in his theory of King’s assassination.
King’s anti-war stance, which was gaining momentum among white liberals across the country, “generated serious apprehension in the boardrooms of the select list of large American corporations which were receiving enormous profits from the conflict,” Pepper writes in his book, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King.
“These, of course, included the range of armament, aircraft, and chemical manufacturers as well as favored construction companies (like Texas and Lyndon Johnson’s own Brown and Root) which had multibillion-dollar contracts, and the oil companies, again including those owned by Texans Johnson and Edgar Hoover’s friends, H.L. Hunt and Clint Murchison,” Pepper writes.
There was another major reason why, in Pepper’s formulation, the government would want King dead. King ultimately decided against a presidential run in lieu of much more direct, grassroots action. His Poor People’s Campaign called for “mobilization culminating in an encampment in the shadow of the Washington Memorial.
“The projection was for the establishment of a tent city of some 500,000 of the nation’s poorest and most alienated citizens, who would regularly lobby their elective officials for a range of socio-economic legislation. They would remain as long as it took to get action from Congress.”
The “wealthy, powerful interests across the nation would find Dr. King’s escalating activity against the war intolerable, his planned mobilization of a half a million poor people with the intention of laying siege to Congress could only engender outrage — and fear,” Pepper writes.
Hunt, who hated King even more than Hoover did, used his “extreme right-wing, daily nationally syndicated Lifeline radio broadcasts” (a precursor to Fox News and OANN) to regularly attack King and to mute his message.
In a June 1967 meeting, Hoover told his good friend Hunt that the Lifeline propaganda would not work. Hoover said, “The only way to stop King would be to ‘completely silence’ him. After King’s murder, Hunt acknowledged […] that Hoover had won that argument.”
In a column last week, I questioned whether my concern about a coming civil war, or at least a collapse of American civil society, was warranted. And, if so, what we can do to prepare for it.
In her new book, How Civil Wars Start and How To Stop Them, international relations Professor Barbara F. Walter writes that we’ve only experienced the current level of political factionalism twice before — in the years before the Civil War and in the mid-1960s, “when the country was roiled by civil rights demonstrations, the Vietnam War, and a corrupt government intent on crushing the anti-establishment movement.”
We are currently in the middle zone between democracy and autocracy, what experts call “anocracy,” according to Walter. These are “neither full autocracies nor democracies but something in between.”
One of the “best predictors of whether a country will experience a civil war is whether it is moving toward or away from democracy,” she adds. The CIA first discovered this relationship between anocracy and civil war in 1994.
The agency found that anocracies, “particularly those with more democratic than autocratic features — what the task force called ‘partial democracies’ — were twice as likely as autocracies to experience political instability or civil war, and three times as likely as democracies.”
For the autocrats, the way to prevent civil war is to double down on repression; for the rest of us, the way to avoid collapse is to shore up trust among ourselves. But how?
My second question — what are we to do about the state we’re in? — was answered, in part, by Sarah Doherty, an associate professor of U.S. History at North Park University in Chicago and an Oak Park resident.
Doherty, who graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School, said she often asks her students if we’ll ever move beyond race and racism in the United States.
“They say, ‘No,’” she told me. “They think we’re way too entrenched in categorizing people and not looking beyond that.”
Doherty, who is Black, is intimately familiar with Oak Park’s long history of racial integration and the importance of remembering that history. She’s more optimistic than many of her students about the country’s prospects.
Doherty’s pre-emptive actions mirror the actions of so many other people I’ve discovered who want to do more than look at CNN and MSNBC or read the New York Times or monitor their Facebook feeds as the country fissures.
Experts will tell you that, during an autocratic attempt, the perpetrators will always seek to assassinate collective memory, which makes it easier for the autocrat to impose his own reality on a fearful populace.
Doherty has done her part to help prevent that from happening, joining the Historic Preservation Commission and contributing her skills, talents and energy to the Oak Park River Forest Museum.
In recent years, Doherty has worked with Frank Lipo, the museum’s director, in organizing “Open House: The Legacy of Fair Housing,” an exhibition that featured Oak Park’s long history of housing segregation and desegregation.
Recently, Doherty, Lipo and others at the museum have worked in collaboration with several organizations across the country to produce an upcoming online exhibition and curriculum guide on housing segregation in northern and western states called “Unvarnished,” which is scheduled to launch this spring.
“For my own health, I stopped watching a lot of news and I don’t immediately jump on social media to check on everything, either,” she told me. “I felt like it was becoming obsessive and that wasn’t helping anything. So I thought, ‘What are ways that I can help to create the world that I ideally would like to live in?’ And for me that starts locally — making sure important stories are being told and helping to diversify the way stories are being told.”
To avoid collapse, we need to follow Doherty’s example and commit ourselves to strengthening our collective memory rooted in community and common humanity, and dismantling any mythologies designed to prop up, in the words of King, the three evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism.