Navigate to News section

The Three Stigmata of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

More than a half century after the civil rights leader’s assassination, the trauma of his death keeps expanding

B. Duncan Moench
January 15, 2021
Library of Congress
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1964Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1964Library of Congress

In Philip K. Dick’s novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, an intergalactic United Nations has organized residents of an increasingly uninhabitable Earth to colonize Mars. Reality is desolate. Colonists leave Earth with no chance of returning. The only escape comes through a dark matter chewing gum called “Chew-Z.” The drug creates a world made up of three distinct moments: the taker’s greatest missed opportunity, their most unacknowledged desire, and the worst moment of their life, all rolled into one. Each time the user ingests it, they get that much closer to resolving their deepest psychological wound.

No political generation has needed the Chew-Z experience more than the baby boomers. For the past week, we’ve been awash in a world of inane commentary claiming to reflect on four years of Trump, the bumbling “coup” attempt by some of his costumed supporters, and what it all meant. Instead, we should be reflecting on the continuing destruction of the American economy and the reduction of large segments of an already desperate workforce to dependence and penury. To understand these phenomena better, we might reflect on a 2020 election cycle that ended with Joe Biden, a near-octogenarian, in the White House; Nancy Pelosi, an actual octogenarian, still somehow leading the House; and Mitch McConnell, another near 80-year-old, directing half the Senate; with Trump threatening to make a future octogenarian run at the White House in 2024. At this point, two things should be abundantly clear: The baby boomers fully intend to die with power in their hands, and something at the core of that entire generation’s being remains existentially off—at odds with itself and the world.

Imagine if we could somehow get the entire baby boom generation to (voluntarily) take Chew-Z. Here’s what I suspect their collective unconscious would start to see, all at once.

April 4, 1968. The Lorraine Motel. Memphis, Tennessee. Martin Luther King Jr.’s body is on the second-floor balcony, bleeding from the head; however, in this universe, instead of dying, someone in King’s entourage spots the rifle off in the distance and pushes King out of the way. He’s bleeding not from a bullet wound, but a bump on the balcony railing. The great man is saved just in the nick of time. The boomers are forced to confront the question: What if … Martin Luther King Jr. lives?

King wasn’t just the country’s greatest orator, but also its most-needed leader, shining at a moment of mass historical rupture. While the short-lived rebellions of 1968 in Paris seem destined to have failed, the same cannot be said of King’s life cut short. Slain before his 40th birthday, King’s assassination stands as America’s greatest political tragedy. King could have been a central part of American life until at least the 2000s, if not the 2010s. Alive today, he’d be celebrating his 92nd birthday. The loss to American cultural advancement and health is almost too large to fathom.

Throughout the last year of his life, King became obsessed with forging a multiracial movement that would demand an economic transformation of the country’s profit-dominated way of life. In December of 1967, King proclaimed “something is wrong with capitalism as it now stands in the United States … A radical redistribution of power must take place.”

Almost 50 years before Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders would lend their names to the concepts, King explicitly advocated for full employment and a national guaranteed annual income for all United States citizens. “We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other … We’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day, we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” King argued in several brilliant speeches in the period just prior to his death.

King had begun talking of a racially unified follow-up movement to the original March on Washington, which would organize America’s 35 million to 40 million indigent into a class-conscious front demanding better pay and working conditions. “I’m not only concerned about the Black poor. I’m concerned about the white poor. I’m concerned about the Puerto Rican poor, the Indian poor. I’m concerned about the Mexican American poor. We are going to grapple with the problem of poor people. And we are going to do it in spite of the philosophical debate, Black and white together,” King proclaimed at the St. Thomas AME church early in 1968.

Yet even King did not fully grasp the Sisyphean level of work involved in crafting a united, multiracial movement of America’s poor. When he decided to go back to Memphis that April to again show his support for sanitation workers who had been on strike for months, most of the staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference protested. The Memphis cause was certainly just, but they were totally overwhelmed. They needed his direction and insight. In less than a month, they were supposed to lead this second March on Washington, now dubbed the “Poor People’s Campaign.” The concept was highly threatening to the country’s business elite, the cultural ruling class and their vested ideological and monetary interests. King could not be naïve about that.

Pop history can laugh at J. Edgar Hoover’s conviction that King was a communist stooge. However, nearly any major figure in American life who has matched class-conscious demands for better wages, benefits, and state-paid social programs has always been denounced as a “communist,” or even as a “fascist.” If that person obtains too much cultural power, sooner or later, the bourgeois chattering class will set out to label their thought “un-American.” It happened to Eugene Debs, Henry Wallace, Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders, and now Sen. Josh Hawley. If you denounce Google as “the most dangerous company on the face of the planet” because of its monopoly ownership of the public speech and historical memory commons, like Sen. Ted Cruz recently did, then you’re a traitor to the country’s elite—and a target.

In 1967, a year before his death, King’s public image transformed from venerable Christian leader to firebrand labor agitator and “radical” opponent of the Vietnam War. When King made his push for a unified class war on the rich, the nation’s third and fourth estates turned on him. Newspapers blamed him for protest violence that King—and his organization—condemned and tried to preemptively stop. Hoover’s FBI began tracking his every move, and donations to the SCLC fell off dramatically. Security agencies committed deplorable acts of spying and disruption on King and his inner circle, all with the intent of demoralizing him and his followers. It didn’t work. King, though, rushed the Poor People’s Campaign. Rallying up the poor and exploited from every region of the country is a six-year project, not a six-month one. However, if there’s anyone—in all of American history—who could have eventually pulled off something like a multiracial movement of the working poor, it would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Just as they were in the late 60s, class politics remain the third rail of the American milieu. However, King—a Baptist minister born and raised in Atlanta—instinctively understood what so many of today’s radicals still fail to grasp: An atheist vision of class struggle will never resonate in the United States. Whether innately or by the grace of God, King knew the way. Americans could see beyond the deceptive mythologies of the “American Dream” but they just needed Christian narratives to help see the concepts as consistent with their values. In constructing his call for class solidarity against capitalist exploitation, King crafted all his arguments in relationship to Christ, calling Jesus “the greatest revolutionary that history has ever known.” As historian Michael Honey writes, King intuitionally understood that framing Christ as the original “nonviolent crusader” would always be “more potent” for the American poor than anything Marx or his acolytes ever put forward. Rather than use pseudo social science like Marx, King borrowed from biblical narratives to make his points. Honey writes that King believed “like the character Dives inthe Bible, who went to hell for failing to ‘see’ and heed the needs of Lazarus, the middle class could also go to hell for forgetting to see and address the problems of the poor.” King called upon reformers to engage in “dangerous altruism” and use Christ’s identification with the poor as the basis for a new American economic method. Christianity, according to King, “is not a euphoria or unalloyed comfort and untroubled ease. What is it? It means taking up the cross. Taking it with all of its tension-packed agony and bearing that cross until it leaves the very marks of Jesus Christ on you and your soul.”

Nothing could be better for international mega corporations—and their legions of employees on food stamps—than break rooms consumed with debates about whose ancestors were more privileged.

In death, King has been elevated to a Mount Rushmore level of American iconography. However, in life, the man gave the country’s vested interests night sweats, though his legacy has since been sanitized and co-opted. A small list of what seems likely to have been different had King lived and led his Poor People’s Campaign: The New Deal electoral coalition could have been saved, or at least refashioned. The juvenile “culture war” that reached a fever pitch not long after King’s death—and has not shown any signs of calming down since—would have had an adult in the room. King, with that booming Baptist tenor of his, could have been here to mediate the absurdities of each side, with his deeply and irrefutably American vision.

Last, but not least, King likely would have gone to battle with the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers. In their debates, the Panthers likely would have continued calling King an “Uncle Tom” and exposed themselves as the incorrigibly racist, anti-Semite criminal organization they always were, and are. It stands to reason, that King also would have been at the forefront of those opposing the anti-European racism of Black nationalists and pseudo-chic academic Maoists, which would have gone a long way toward undermining the spread of critical race theory across academia and the pop culture industry. Instead of constantly debating the existential sins of “whiteness” and the West, the country today might have instead—occasionally at least—discussed how best to provide economic aid to those who need it, and structure a just economy that serves the needs of American workers and small business owners of all races and religions.

King’s call for ending poverty through governmental measures seeking to ensure the “dignity of work” cut to the core of the moral and financial corruption of America’s business-centered elite. Multinational corporations and their apparatchiks in the punditocracy don’t like having to explain why combating poverty “simply isn’t possible.” There are very good reasons Amazon, Pepsi, and Citigroup public relations teams offer up gestures of fulsome support for representational correctness and identity grievance politics: Nothing could be better for international mega corporations—and their legions of employees on food stamps—than break rooms consumed with debates about whose ancestors were more privileged.

What’s that about higher pay, health care, and benefits? I can’t hear you over the sound of my Learjet engines. Keep talking about intersectionality and race-based grievances , though. We support the cause, comrade. You take what he has, and he takes what you have. Figure that all out while I jet off to my bunker in New Zealand.

In a speech the day before his murder, King had an eerie premonition. He proclaimed that he “had seen the mountaintop.” He added that while he personally “may not get there with you, we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” Yet American political and civic life has very much not reached the Promised Land or the mountaintop. Instead, the country has descended to the new depths of institutional dysfunction, cultural division, and civic decay.

Briefly revisiting Germany’s cultural descent in the 1910s and 1920s—the two decades before Hitler became a household name—is illustrative of what happens when an entire generation lives in the trauma of missed opportunity, and eventually loses its grasp on the high stakes of the present. Just as America had in the 1960s, Kaiserreich Germany stood on the precipice of cultural transformation in the 1910s. If the kaiser and the German Wehrmacht don’t defend Austro-Hungry—then preemptively attack France in 1914—the 20th century would have been not the American century, but the German one.

Instead, everything collapsed in front of Germany’s eyes, and an entire traumatized generation became “lost.” Adding insult to injury, German culture was demonized across much of the Western world as a militarist “autocratic” culture that “ate babies” and “ravaged women and children.” During the revolution of 1918, German politics were forced to witness yet another historical miscarriage when Rosa Luxemburg was assassinated at precisely the moment Germany, Marxism, and—truly—the world needed her most. Luxemburg—the Polish Jew and lodestone leader of the German left—was one of the only Marxists of the early 20th century to stand up to Lenin’s totalitarian vision for communism. While still calling herself a communist, Luxemburg articulately debated Lenin inside socialist journals, explaining that freedom of thought was not a “bourgeois luxury” as he called it. Instead, freedom of thought—and speech—are always needed to preserve space for “those who think differently.”

With Luxemburg slain in 1918, instead of exploring her moderating vision of a democratic communism, the German left began eating itself. All the while, the demented features of the German right festered and grew during the Weimar Republic period, exploiting the mainly legitimate grievances of the German people—a process which, of course, ended with the largest scheme of mass murder in world history.

Despite what most scholars and historical commentators offer, the true lesson of the Weimar Republic’s collapse in the face of Nazi fascism doesn’t involve liberal excess or dysfunction. Instead, it involves cultural exhaustion and the cultural effect of opportunities lost. Industrial-scale genocide most likely won’t be the ultimate result for the period of insanity the United States is currently living through—but the similarities with the Weimar period are hard to miss.

As a political class at least, the boomers are America’s own lost generation—yet with zero intention of relinquishing power. The Me Generation’s political elite fervently believes no one could possibly do the job better. Didn’t they just defeat Donald Trump—the American “Hitler”?

It’s easy to see why boomers think this way. Trump was indeed bad, but he is a monster of their own making. The Donald is nothing if not the incarnation of common Americans’ rejection of the world elite boomers created—a world that treats common interests and sensibilities with ever-increasing contempt. The beginning of the baby boomer’s entry into politics wasn’t bad, though. At many stages in the early-to-mid ’60s, the Civil Rights Movement brought out the best in America—people of all ethnicities, religions, and regions fighting to end an apartheid inside the country. Yet the devolution of a broad-based Civil Rights Movement—shepherded by the unparalleled magnanimity of King—into an Ivy League, nanny-state, one-party crusade to police speech and crush dissent in the service of a new racial ideology—this time with the assumed characteristics of the races reversed—in order to maintain a social order that benefits a tiny minority of billionaire oligarchs is about as cynical and counterproductive a development as anyone could have ever anticipated. Without King’s moderating voice, the American left has morphed into a Jungian shadow of itself that, 50 years later, expresses itself in the twin monstrosities of “wokeness” and a monopolistic tech oligarchy that supports it. However, boomers might be forgiven for the dysplasia of their political outlooks if we acknowledge the grotesque nature of King’s tragic end and the historical miscarriage of his legacy cut short.

Just as early-20th-century Germany needed to see where Luxemburg’s leadership would next take German collectivism, we—as a nation—needed to see where King’s presence would next take American individualism. The baby boomers, most of all, needed to witness King’s full intellectual and political development. Would he have created the most powerful nonprofit advocacy group in the nation’s history? Would he have started a new political party? Would he have run for president? All these questions haunt the American mind.

As with Luxemburg, even if King’s efforts to change the country failed, that process needed to be allowed to take its natural course. If his Poor Persons Campaign came up short, examining how and where would have taught boomers essential lessons about how to direct reformist energies. Instead, what boomers unknowingly learned from King’s assassination is that you can do everything right—protest nonviolently, compromise, embrace Christ-like patience—and your reward will be some racist moron shooting you in the head while you bend down to tie your shoes. It was a terrible thing to see. There’s no way around how much King’s assassination effected elite boomers’ fear of everyday Middle Americans and their conception of what’s possible for the nation. Trauma, though, rarely ameliorates itself without at first being recognized, relived, then reframed. This is what George Santayana meant, in his so often misquoted passage, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.”

There’s a desperate need to reclaim King’s economic justice legacy and create a contemporary version of his Poor People’s Campaign. The country yearns for a movement directed by commonsense working people that transcends political parties; a movement that embraces all religions and all social politics, including—prepare your fainting chair—gun owners, gender traditionalists, and pro-lifers under the banner of worker dignity, anti-poverty, and national unity.

Had King lived, we almost surely would have seen this movement take shape in some form. It likely would not have succeeded immediately, or even quickly. As with America’s original labor movement, the process might have taken decades, if not a half century. Eventually, though, with King—and his actual disciples at the helm—the country’s system of brutalist social Darwinism accomplished with state collusion and carried out under the name of meritocratic individualism would have had to shift.

We don’t live in a world of revelatory cosmic space drugs like Philip K. Dick’s Chew-Z. Boomers likely will never heal from their central psychic wounds, nor acknowledge—much less apologize for—the mess they’ve left the country in. Cause and effect work only in one direction. Opportunities are lost. Change is real and often permanent. The decades long struggle to build an American version of social democracy, which King started in 1967, was kneecapped in Memphis less than a year later. We will never actually witness a vision of what might have been had King lived.

Yet on the day we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the question must be: Who or what can take up where King left off?

B. Duncan Moench is Tablet’s social critic at large, a Research Fellow at Heterodox Academy’s Segal Center for Academic Pluralism, and a contributing writer at County Highway.