“Now That He Is Safely Dead”: Silencing the Voice of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gary G. Kohls, MD

“Now That He Is Safely Dead”

Now that he is safely dead let us praise him, build monuments to his glory, sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes.
They cannot rise to challenge the images we would fashion from their lives.
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.

– Carl Wendell Hines

“Now That He Is Safely Dead” is the poignant poem that was written by black poet and musician Carl Wendell Hines soon after Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965. The poem has also been appropriately associated with the assassination of the anti-war activist Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy of leading the nonviolent struggle in America for black liberation, economic justice for the poor, and peace on earth.

As an advocate for and a believer in the practicality of the nonviolent teachings of Jesus, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King, I have been somewhat disappointed in the themes of the celebrations of the two major King anniversary dates, his annual national holiday (around January 15, his birthday) and the anniversary of his assassination (April 4).

It seems to me that instead of emphasizing Dr. King’s powerful (and very inconvenient) teachings about gospel nonviolence, most Americans have indeed been satisfied with granting him a national holiday and a national monument, with only a tip of the hat to the source of his core belief system: New Testament ethics. Of course, the powers that be vehemently opposed even the national holiday, but they have come to tolerate the yearly marches, speeches, and free breakfasts, as long as the people ignore Dr. King’s radical teachings the rest of the year.

Most seekers of peace and justice who have read Hines’ poem above know that the sentiment applies equally well to the legacy of other great champions of the down-trodden, including Iraq War opponent and 9/11 Truth-seeker Senator Paul Wellstone, who was silenced on October 25, 2002, under circumstances that were totally compatible with a well-covered-up political assassination. Wellstone’s killing occurred 10 days before his assured re-election over the Cheney/Bush selectee, Republican Norm Coleman (see the documentary trailer for Snowshoe Film’s “Wellstone: They Killed Him” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-bmmpoDndw). World history changed with the Wellstone assassination, for the Senate lost the Democratic majority that might have been able to derail the military misadventures pushed by the Cheney/Bush administration.

Of course, King and Wellstone aren’t the only examples of martyred progressive leaders who courageously spoke out for peace and justice despite knowing their assassination risk. A short list of martyrs like Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy comes to mind.

Jesus and his radical
peace message seems
to be safely dead

But the best example of the silencing of left-wing truth-tellers by the ruling elite was Jesus of Nazareth and his radical ethical teachings about active, nonviolent resistance to evil in the struggle for justice and the relief of human suffering, which were teachings that King embraced. Tragically, Jesus’ teachings, though they proved powerful and practical, only thrived for a couple of centuries after his crucifixion, and today there are only a few remnants of that original form of Christianity. King’s movement was simply an aberrant, though accurate, echo of the original Jesus movement.

The teachings of Jesus and King are just barely surviving today within the three historic peace churches (Quaker, Mennonite, and the Church of the Brethren) and a small silenced group of invisible communities of faith such as the Catholic Worker movement, Every Church A Peace Church, and a few denominational peace fellowships. The killings of Jesus and King also seem to have also silenced their revolutionary, gospel-based truths.

In the 4th century CE, organized Christianity was co-opted into forgetting the ethical teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule, unconditional love and mercy to “the least of these,” and the command to love one’s enemies. These radical nonviolent teachings were gradually relegated to obscurity when Christianity was established as the state religion of the war-mongering Roman Empire. In addition, the anti-pacifist doctrines of various Vatican Councils (starting with the Council of Nicaea in 325) and the writings of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Martin Luther, among others, were gradually given supremacy. Justified war principles were developed so that the followers of the pacifist Jesus could engage in the killing professions and not be excommunicated from the church. Such principles have permitted Christians during the last 1700 years to torture and kill “the enemies of God” and the enemies of the state while simultaneously claiming to follow, worship, and adore the nonviolent Jesus.

But King understood Jesus’ mission and the power of nonviolent love. He made a point of studying Gandhi’s nonviolent movement, even traveling to India where he spoke to the disciples of Gandhi. He came home convinced that Gandhian nonviolence could be useful for overcoming the type of American fascism that ruled the Deep South. And so, until the day he died, he worked to implement the radical peace plan of the gospels with all of his heart, mind, strength, and soul.

The process of
purging the prophets

But, as we know, the prophetic voice of King was silenced in its prime, just as the voices of Jesus and Wellstone were silenced. Murderous, conscienceless principalities and powers recognize the prophets and the whistle-blowers early on, and they usually don’t waste much time hindering them, discrediting them, and ultimately developing contingency plans for the “final solution” of the “problem” if everything else fails to stop the rabble-rousing truth-teller.

Typically, a prophet’s unwelcome truths are first ignored and then actively censored out of the media. Then, if that doesn’t work, the prophets themselves are verbally attacked, discredited, marginalized, and demeaned. If those strategies still don’t stop the movement, the prophet and his innocent family members are threatened, beaten, or imprisoned. Only then, as a last resort, a disappearance or assassination is orchestrated (carried out by a covert operation or a patsy and with plenty of plausible deniability built in).

And so it goes. Being a prophet, which King described it as “a vocation of agony,” is a hazardous duty.

Whistle-blowers such as Dr. King know very well that they are going to pay a heavy price for their refusal to bow down to authority. They know that they will probably have to endure character assassinations, the origins of which are usually well hidden.

January 21 this year is Martin Luther King Day. In most cities across the United States, justice-seeking African-Americans, plus groups of theological and political progressives, many of whom are not black, will be celebrating the birthday anniversary of Dr. King, who was born in 1929.

Decades after his assassination, King is now known mostly for his “I Have a Dream” speech and his civil rights activism on behalf of poor blacks. The powers-that-be seem to be okay with the dream speech, but seem to prefer that King’s commitment to Jesus’ gospel nonviolence be left out. Thus that essential part of the King legacy remains unacknowledged and unheard. And many churches go along with the plan.

I think it is important to understand that King’s speaking out against the Vietnam War and his commitment to achieving justice for the poor and the marginalized were all rooted in his understanding of the mission and ethics of his mentor, Jesus of Nazareth. King’s belief in the practicality of nonviolent societal transformation mirrored the politics and theology of both Jesus and Gandhi, and it was the teachings of those two heroes of his that shaped the civil rights movement.

But it was King’s anti-war activism that ultimately unleashed the conspiracy plot that permanently silenced him—with a rifle shot to the head on April 4, 1968. Dr. King was killed by a conspiracy of politically motivated groups and individuals (and NOT the framed James Earl Ray). See William F. Pepper’s revelatory (and censored) book “An Act of State” and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ISfWE6dMgw for the proof.

The event that sealed King’s fate was his famous and powerful “Beyond Vietnam” speech, delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. Speaking out against the war in Vietnam was the last straw for the plotters. King had to go.

Viewed through the lens of Jesus’ long-ignored teachings, King saw the connections between the serious costs (spiritual, psychological, physical, and financial) of active participation in the mass slaughter in Vietnam and the racial and economic violence back home that was preventing poor blacks from attaining justice in America. King knew that it was impossible for any nation to adequately fund both “guns and butter” (the notion that a nation can fund war and militarism and, at the same time, provide adequately for its people’s basic human needs). America’s pro-war politicians, with the help of war-profiteering corporations and their lobbyists, had already made the choice for war. The funding was going to support the guns and not butter, war and not jobs or educational opportunities or healthcare.

President Johnson lost his “war on poverty” because he and Nixon fought the wars in Vietnam. Flushing trillions of dollars of borrowed money down the Pentagon toilet for inedible weapons and cannon fodder over the past 50 years has meant that America can’t afford disaster relief, affordable health care, healthy sustainable food, energy security, sustainable environment policies, or winning the war on drugs.

In the Riverside Church speech, exactly one year before his assassination, King said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

King’s Triple Evils:
Racism, Poverty
and Militarism

It seems to me that the annual Martin Luther King Day celebrations tend to focus inordinately on the very worthy “I Have a Dream” speech and not enough on King’s efforts to expose the unaffordable costs of war and militarism as powerful root causes of the plight of poor people in America. All three of the triple evils were important to King, but it seems that good old “kill a commie for Christ” militarism is the invisible elephant in the room. And the ruling elite wants it to remain invisible. It is military and domestic violence and the willingness to kill that Dr. King spoke out against, and it is military spending that keeps justice out of reach. Reversing poverty and racism will be impossible as long as America continues to spend two billion dollars every day on war-making and militarism. Every program of social uplift, including hurricane relief, education funding, affordable health care, and affordable child care, is made unaffordable when military spending has no limits.

Just like the nearly extinguished spirit of the nonviolent Jesus, the spirit of Martin Luther King is not dead yet, no matter how much effort is exerted to suppress their truths. The eternal truths of the Sermon on the Mount have not been purged—they have only been ignored. But these truth-tellers can only be heard if those of us who continue to believe in their common dream echo their calls for peace and justice.

Dr. King and Jesus have been trying to tell us, “Put away the sword, for those who live by the sword will surely perish by the sword.” America needs to stop its 50-year string of suicidal, trillion-dollar-per-year military spending if there is to be any hope of achieving economic relief, jobs, health care, and an end to racism.

Let it be so.

Dr. Kohls practiced holistic mental health care and saw first-hand the devastating mental health costs of violence (both domestic AND combat violence), neurotoxic prescription drug overuse, brain malnutrition, addictions, and sleep deprivation. Each of King’s triple evils are common root causes of what are often misdiagnosed as “mental illnesses of unknown etiology” rather than properly diagnosed as the (totally preventable) violence-caused traumatic stress spectrum of disorders that have known etiologies.