This essay is featured in print in Fifty Years Since MLK.
No part of the vision statement for the Movement for Black Lives received as much immediate mainstream pushback as its stinging repudiation of U.S. foreign policy. Its demands, which included a call for military and security divestment, permanent opposition to the War on Terror, and a declaration of solidarity with Palestinians, generated criticism about specific policies (especially with respect to Israel and Palestine) and about the perceived disconnect between police brutality toward black citizens and U.S. military practices in distant lands. The implication was that by extending their vision beyond the national borders, black freedom activists were combining issues that were not inherently connected and better left to the security experts.
Moreover, critics were uncomfortable with the statement’s rejection of one of the most common mechanisms for outsider groups to gain inclusion in U.S. life: national security citizenship. By this I mean the idea that one shows one’s worthiness for membership by supporting—and being willing to fight and die for—the security policies of the state. To this day, the idea that oppressed groups earn inclusion through sacrifice on behalf of the state remains a potent one. Simply recall Bill Clinton’s effort during his 2016 Democratic National Convention speech to reach out to Muslims, a group that had been targeted and demeaned by Donald Trump’s campaign. “If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror,” Clinton offered, “stay here and help us win and make a future together.” Behind the rosy rhetoric, the clear implication was that Muslim’s rights were conditional on their support of U.S. security commitments and that such support was how Muslims cemented their status as Americans.
By opposing U.S. foreign policy, the Movement for Black Lives repudiated the classic idea that oppressed communities should share the same goals as the state.
By contrast, in linking black freedom to opposition to the country’s foreign policy orientation, the Movement for Black Lives’ statement repudiated the classic assumption that the goals of the security state and the goals of oppressed communities should be thought of as one and the same. Instead, it argued, oppressed communities have to articulate their own independent foreign policy grounded above all in the interests of other marginalized groups. As the document reads, “The Black radical tradition has always been rooted in igniting connection across the global south under the recognition that our liberation is intrinsically tied to the liberation of Black and Brown people around the world.” This independent orientation emphasizes solidarities abroad (between poor or colonized peoples) and, as a consequence, directly challenges the security state’s prerogatives. Suspicious of any harmonious “we the people,” freedom activists instead see a shared community emerging, not with fellow co-nationals, but with the oppressed everywhere.
By emphasizing the tie between the foreign and the domestic as well as the need for a distinct black foreign policy, the authors of the vision statement carried on an essential, although often forgotten, element of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s own political legacy. We do not ordinarily think of King as an exemplar of a black and radical internationalism, but in the last year of his life, King went much further than simply declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War. He also declared his hostility to U.S. militarism in all its forms and asserted that such hostility was integral to his account of black freedom.
King saw the war as emblematic of a general U.S. approach to foreign affairs that treated local, often non-white communities as means to the end of national ambitions and as instruments for the perpetual extension of global power. The logic that justified subverting anti-colonial independence movements in Southeast Asia was the very same logic that maintained structures of racial and class subordination at home. It is why he argued, much to the consternation of President Lyndon Johnson and black elites such as Whitney Young at the National Urban League, that one could not coherently promote black freedom while supporting the war. The two issues, he contended, were inextricably intertwined.
King did not oppose the Vietnam War because it was unpopular, but because he opposed the totality of U.S. imperium.
Today, King’s anti-imperialism is usually either ignored altogether or, more commonly, defanged of precisely what made it so threatening at the time. To the extent that current commentators mention King on U.S. foreign policy, it is only to discuss the war in Vietnam shorn of any of its broader Cold War context and presented in the most conventional terms. Since the war was unpopular, it is not a surprise that King would oppose it. Indeed, the meaning ascribed to King’s opposition is often reduced to the common center-left narrative of Vietnam: it was a discrete folly undertaken by an otherwise moral nation.
What is lost is the revolutionary implication behind King’s rejection of the totality of U.S. imperium. Since such imperium was an expression of basic flaws in the structure of U.S. society, King’s growing belief was that the United States could only be redeemed if it was fundamentally transformed, both at home and abroad. This is a position rarely associated now with the sanitized and sanctified King of popular culture. But for King, as for his radical descendants in the Movement for Black Lives, black freedom cannot be achieved without breaking from U.S. nationalism and articulating a global vision of racial justice. These views were controversial in the 1960s and, as the blowback faced by Black Lives activists or even Colin Kaepernick attests to, they remain deeply unsettling today.
At the heart of U.S. civic nationalism, as I have written elsewhere, is the idea that the United States has been committed to the principle—emblazoned in the Declaration of Independence—that “all men are created equal” and that the country’s history can be viewed as a steady fulfillment of this founding promise. In 1944 Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal offered a foundational articulation of this collective ethos, declaring in An American Dilemma that “this nation early laid down as the moral basis for its existence the principles of equality and liberty.” Myrdal argued that, although racist and archaic practices may have continued to persist in pockets—or entire regions—of the country, these practices were incompatible with national values. “The main trend” in U.S. history was “the gradual realization” of what he called “the American Creed.” Indeed, so pure were the country’s founding motives that the United States could be seen, at its core, as nothing less than “humanity in miniature.”
At the heart of U.S. civic nationalism is the idea that the country’s militarism is always in service of standing warmheartedly against oppression in all the world.
In the years after World War II and in the context of global competition with the Soviet Union, this vision of national identity increasingly became central to how U.S. policymakers and elites conceived of the collective project. This account was compelling for a number of reasons, chief among them for how it combined, during the height of the Cold War, racial reform with a defense of U.S. power. Because domestic politics were built on universal values, the defense of those values from outside threats and the projection of them abroad could be seen as a good beyond question. As Myrdal had underscored, Americans stood “warmheartedly against oppression in all the world.”
Promoting freedom at home was thus used to justify security prerogatives abroad. President Harry Truman explicitly argued that if U.S. foreign ambitions were to succeed, the country would have to “correct the remaining imperfections in our practice of democracy.” Against the global backdrop of anti-colonial resistance, President Lyndon Johnson told a trusted advisor that “segregation” at home was “absolutely crazy” because “80 percent of the world is not white.” For both presidents, recasting domestic institutions as essentially just, in need of only small-scale reform, buttressed the legitimacy of the U.S. claim to hegemony and to international police power.
This narrative also allowed racial reform to go hand in hand with preserving U.S. domestic stability. Changes were depicted as achieving a set of ideals present since the founding of the republic and requiring no fundamental breaks with the economic and political status quo. It should be noted that this essentially preservative role was shared not just by white politicians but also by some representatives of the black middle class, who had long viewed the civil rights struggle in terms of elite social mobility and of liberal inclusion into arenas of corporate, professional, and political power.
The question of how black and other oppressed groups should relate to U.S. foreign policy was thus clear. Since the country was basically just, its efforts abroad were similarly worthy. Unlike its totalitarian foes—closed and authoritarian states—the United States was an open and tolerant society that spread universal self-government wherever it went. This meant that, regardless of one’s race or sense of marginalization domestically, all Americans as a single “we the people” should identify with the country’s global authority and overall objectives.
For many advocates of racial justice, war support and participation—national security citizenship—has long been a means of justifying black equality.
This vision of the national project promoted a clear bargain between white policymakers and the traditional civil rights movement, one with obvious echoes throughout U.S. history. For white and black defenders of racial equality, war support and participation—national security citizenship—had long been a means to justify black inclusion. From Crispus Attucks, the first person killed during the American Revolution, to the black regiments that fought for the Union Army, to the “Buffalo Soldiers” that participated in military campaigns against native peoples, identifying with the state’s imperatives served as proof of one’s belonging.
Similarly, in the Cold War years, black activists were being asked to parrot a patriotic anti-communism and to defend U.S. global power as a condition, often explicitly, of implementing domestic reforms. As proof of this bargain, look no further than the State Department’s involvement in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which the department submitted an amicus brief emphasizing the importance of overturning segregation as part of winning hearts and minds in the struggle with the Soviet Union.
When U.S. power seemed to align with anti-racism, the tensions embedded in such national security citizenship dissipated. During World War II, African American leaders routinely tied the war against Nazism to the domestic struggle against white supremacy—viewing these opponents as two sides of the same coin and calling for a “double victory” over fascism. Under these conditions, the call among black leaders to “close ranks,” as W. E. B. Du Bois infamously declared during World War I, was less fraught.
But what if the conflict required blacks to support a war effort that promoted racial hegemony and European empire and that undermined the ability of other oppressed and non-white groups to enjoy self-rule? When African Americans fought and died to expropriate land from native peoples or to maintain power over a colonized Filipino population, did that not promote precisely the politics of white supremacy that shackled them at home? More than anything else, this was the dilemma that Vietnam raised for the civil rights movement.
Ultimately, the only way for King to take this basic problem seriously was to move beyond the civic and creedal nationalism that defined the Cold War racial compact. But this is not how he is remembered today. Americans at present tend to think of the King who, in 1961, referred to the Declaration of Independence as the “noble dream” of the Founding Fathers even though the enduring truth of the U.S. project was “as yet unfulfilled.” This early King seemed to accept Cold War patriotism, viewing the “American dream” as what “ultimately distinguishes democracy and our form of government from all of the totalitarian regimes that emerge in history.”
When blacks fought and died to expropriate land from native peoples, did that not promote precisely the politics of white supremacy that shackled them?
But King’s rhetorical embrace of creedal language was part of a longstanding ambiguity in black political thought. A century earlier, Frederick Douglass had both declared that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document committed to universal principles and had spoken on July 5, 1852, to vigorously assert the constitutive racism of the U.S. project in his speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” Douglass both embraced and disavowed a universally egalitarian account of U.S. identity as the “truth” of the national project, and he realized that whenever he invoked U.S. principles he was in part seeking to call into being a national ethos that may not actually exist. Similarly for King, proclaiming the “American dream” to be true was tied to his rhetorical effort to compel white America to reconceive the meaning of its own project.
But what Vietnam eventually highlighted for King was that completing the civic national project alone may not be enough to generate ultimate liberation for black and oppressed peoples. As King noted in his 1967 speech on the conflict, the Vietnamese “must see Americans as strange liberators,” given that the United States had “vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam” and now was brutally imposing its own economic and security ends on an indigenous people seeking independence. As he would repeat over the next year, U.S. behavior in Vietnam was a product of the general structure of U.S. institutions. Rather than essentially just, these institutions had long been organized on principles of class and racial hierarchy. As a result, the security prerogatives that the state projected abroad were necessary extensions of these domestic hierarchies.
In contrast to the creedal nationalism of the traditional civil rights movement, King began articulating his own version of Third World Internationalism, an orientation that had for decades shaped much of radical black politics. Such “third worldism” viewed the United States not as a quintessentially free and equal nation, but instead through the struggles against colonialism that were engulfing the Global South. According to this perspective, the United States was divided between racially privileged insiders and nonwhite peoples, whose land and labor served as the basis for elite wealth and power. As in apartheid South Africa, the fact that U.S. society was founded on oppression meant that liberation would require more than inclusion in the existing social order; it would necessitate precisely what King called for, a “radical restructuring” or a “revolution in values.”
In contrast to the creedal nationalism of the traditional civil rights movement, King began articulating his own version of Third World Internationalism.
The United States’ ongoing relationship with South Africa was eye-opening for King, and he emphasized how the United States played a vital role in sustaining white rule there: “the tragedy of South Africa is not simply in its own policy; it is the fact that the racist government of South Africa is virtually made possible by the economic policies of the United States and Great Britain.”
Such uncomfortable facts led King to a remarkable conclusion. The standard liberal anti-war position then—as it is today in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan—was to critique the conflict as inconsistent with the nation’s moral fabric. But King took his criticism further. In the war, he saw a deep truth about the violence encoded in the country’s very DNA. For that reason, not only was the war in Vietnam unjust, but black support for Cold War imperatives as such were morally indefensible. At a time when “all over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression,” Cold War anti-communism placed a false patriotism ahead of meaningful solidarities between poor and excluded peoples.
Thus, “a genuine revolution of values” meant “that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional” and that black and poor communities had to reject a warlike nationalism in favor of properly internationalist alliances of shared interest and commitment. At home, this required reimagining the civil rights movement as a poor people’s movement that incorporated blacks, impoverished whites, indigenous peoples, and immigrant communities with the goal of abolishing poverty and overcoming capitalism. And with respect to Vietnam, it underscored that people of good conscience could not participate in the conflict and should explicitly seek conscientious objector status—even if they may be able to claim other exemptions—to avoid the draft.
King did not go as far as the Black Panthers to contend that black people, as an internally colonized group, should not have to serve in the military at all. But his call to refuse the draft on ideological grounds and to reject the security state altogether was nonetheless dramatic. It was also a profoundly difficult call for him to make, especially given his access to the highest echelons of white politics. It entailed breaking from the bargain that marked national security citizenship and that allowed for inclusion, albeit on terms of black assimilation, into the economic, political, and military status quo. It raised the specter of African Americans, as had long been the case, being cast yet again as a “fifth column” in the United States and as inherently anti-American. Indeed, especially after King’s assassination, the U.S. government escalated its crackdown on black radicalism—with leaders killed, imprisoned, or forced into exile—and justified its actions in precisely these terms.
For King, not only was the war in Vietnam unjust, but black support for Cold War imperatives were morally indefensible.
But for King the imperative was clear. The civic nationalism of the Cold War and its constitutional faith was ultimately insufficient to dislodge “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” In King’s view, the country, particularly in its embrace of the corporate and security implications of the “American century,” had chosen “by choice or by accident” a destructive historical path: “the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.” Ultimately, any actual justice would necessitate transcending the creed and even the “American dream” he had spoken about so eloquently; the nation had to be transformed, root and branch, into a fundamentally new polity.
Today the very reasons why King broke from the strictures of national security citizenship are evident throughout the political landscape. Whatever its rhetorical appeal, such strictures have come at real costs, over time dramatically narrowing the boundaries of political conversation and sustaining a conservative and hierarchical nationalism. We can see these costs in the role U.S. militarism plays in shaping the terms of acceptable patriotism and in silencing dissent generally, from black athletes kneeling for the national anthem (so as to protest ongoing racial oppression) to Muslim and Arab Americans questioning the mass surveillance of their communities as well as the legitimacy of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
We also see the costs of the supposed termination of formalized discrimination—the heart of the postwar racial bargain. Indeed, civil rights protections have not generated a post-racial country, but have instead gone hand in hand with hyperincarceration of communities of color, extreme class inequalities, and the increasing return of an explicit and virulent white supremacy. The failure since King’s death to address the structural dimensions of racial and class subordination—as well as the persistent growth of the security apparatus—has left those “giant triplets” he railed against unchecked in U.S. life.
As the left grows more assertive against the backdrop of centrist defeat and in the era of Trump and Republican xenophobia, any truly progressive social base must be built on a vision of solidarity that rejects false nationalisms and that connects arguments about U.S. power to those about political economy. We have seen this emerge already not only in the Movement for Black Lives, but also in the Occupy movement, elements of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina, the Fight for Fifteen, and the efforts at a genuine cooperative commonwealth in Jackson, Mississippi.
King recognized a half century ago that liberal completion would not effectively redeem the country, but we are trapped today with the consequences of that failed path. We still require that same radical restructuring that King suggested in the months before his death—one that calls out capitalism and empire as the relevant forces of oppression and that sees a cross-racial and class conscious movement as the only foundation for effective freedom.