This Martin Luther King day, why not celebrate by reading one of MLK’s last speeches, the one delivered at Carnegie Hall on 23 February 1968 to fête the 100th Anniversary of the birth of W. E. B. DuBois?
Well, you can’t.
Not, at least, if you go to the MLK archive (sponsors: JPMorgan Chase & Co.). I wrote to them earlier this week, pointing out that in their million document collection of speeches, letters and pamphlets, they had omitted Dr King’s encomium to the great W. E. B. DuBois. Carnegie Hall recorded the event, and posts a picture (above) celebrating the then-Nobel Laureate’s oratory. The archives have yet to reply.
MLK’s Du Bois speech is the source of one his more famous quotes:
“it is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist”,
which comes in the context of a less famous quote:
We cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years. It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly welcomed the support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely. In contemporary life the English- speaking world has no difficulty with the fact that Sean O’Casey was a literary giant of the twentieth century and a Communist or that Pablo Neruda is generally considered the greatest living poet though he also served in the Chilean Senate as a Communist. It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.
Even less circulated on the anniversary of his birthday will be MLK’s observation that DuBois had to “battle with the army of white propagandists – the myth-makers of Negro history.”
This, incidentally, is what you get when you search for ‘propagandists’ on the MLK Archives (sponsors: JP Morgan Chase & Co.).
Dr King ended his speech with this call to action:
We have to go to Washington because they have declared an armistice in the war on poverty while squandering billions to expand a senseless, cruel, unjust war in Vietnam. We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until the administration responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we will embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination…
Dr. Du Bois’ greatest virtue was his committed empathy with all the oppressed and his divine dissatisfaction with all forms of injustice. Today we are still challenged to be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every man can have food and material necessities for his body, culture and education for his mind, freedom and until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent, sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized. Let us be dissatisfied until brotherhood is no longer a meaningless word at the end of a prayer but the first order of business on every legislative agenda. Let us be dissatisfied until our brother of the Third World- Asia, Africa, and Latin America-will no longer be the victim of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy, and disease. Let us be dissatisfied until this pending cosmic elegy will be transformed into a creative psalm of peace and “justice will roll down like waters from a mighty stream.”
Search for “justice will roll down like waters from a mighty stream” and this is what you get from the MLK archives (sponsors: JPMorgan Chase & Co.).
On the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, pointing out that he was increasingly interested in the causes of poverty is the right thing to do. His memory is ill served by an archive (sponsors: JP Morgan Chase & Co.) that mutes him.
Luckily, this speech explains the importance of writing history against power, points to those for whom such writing is so very uncomfortable, and demands – demands – that criticism come with organizing for justice. It’s a speech that deserves to be far better known. So here it is, in its entirety.*