On 29 October 1929, ten months after Martin Luther King, Jr was born, Wall Street crashed thus causing one of the worst Depressions in modern history. This led to a devastating deluge of crises mostly emanating from the financial industry but eventually influencing everyday life. Yet for the destitute, workers lost their jobs and farmers moved off their land. Relatedly, African Americans were further pressed under Jim Crow segregation often finding themselves to be the first hired.
Life had become dire but ethnic minorities found a way to resist. Autoworkers in Flint, Michigan led sit-in strikes and anti-racists defended the Scottsboro Boys against oppression. The wave of political activity during the 1930s and 1940s provided the foundation for Black Americans to collectively organize and build confidence in their community.
In 1955, when Martin Luther King became president of the NAACP in Montgomery Alabama, the organization had reached its 46th year. As a young Minister, King and an outsider to this town, he helped to lead a campaign with a community of seasoned activists, including Rosa Parks—a militant troublemaker who had a led a 1944 campaign against sexual assault. Turning to the 1955 Montgomery boycott, one is struck by King’s initial campaign and his insistence for justice. He proclaimed:
We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.
1955 was not a year that existed in isolation but was part of decades of struggle—financial and racial—one where a growing number of African Americans were resisting the status quo. Many of the figures in King’s orbit were briefly impacted by Leftist politics. One of King’s most important mentors was Bayard Rustin, a gay Black American who briefly joined the Communist Party. Socialism, was not an impasse, but part of the guiding principle for how he politically oriented himself. By 1964, Rustin argued that the Civil Rights movement should link with the labour movement and took clear steps to make this a reality. Through his leadership at the A. Randolph Institute—a division of the AFL-CIO—he helped to promote unionization among Black workers and to help integrate historically white work places.
King’s legacy is often overshadowed by his “I Have a Dream” speech which was delivered at the March on Washington on 28 August 1963. Yet, it was the "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on 4 April 1967 which unearthed Martin Luther King’s anti-imperialist platform. The speech is candid about the destructive forces of the US war in Vietnam by putting on display the impact of total war on Vietnamese life. He speaks about the concentration camps and the bombs. He describes how the US military poisons Vietnamese water and sabotages their illustrious forests. Beyond Vietnam, he points out that the destructive elements of war comes with a cost. King notes:
I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds on the rehabilitation of its poor so long as it adventures like Vietnam continue to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destruction suction tooth. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
King’s speech broke the silence that liberals could not endure. He pointed to the material consequences of war. In a world where the United States military occupied Vietnam and other countries, the working class and poor would continue to suffer. US imperialism was the enemy not the Vietnamese. This speech was delivered one year before King’s death and some argue that it was the beginning of his radicalization and subsequent death. Nevertheless, he was right to point out that “a time comes when silence is betrayal and that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.” Today, that time has come for us in Iraq and Afghanistan.