Apr
02
1998

Honoring King While Clouding His Legacy

Whether by design or a random twist of fate, President Clinton's scheduled return to Washington from his historic Africa trip came just before the 30th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Another laudatory statement from the White House was predictable. Like countless other politicians, Clinton often pays tribute to King — while selectively praising his legacy.

But imagine the media uproar if Clinton had stepped off Air Force One and proceeded to quote some of King's less palatable assertions.

For instance, in a speech exactly one year before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, King declared: "A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth." And he denounced "capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries."

The mass media and both major parties have no use for this sort of talk. They like the safe images of King as a great orator, a brave civil-rights leader, a martyr on a postage stamp.

King's denunciations of predatory investments in the Third World may seem outdated or exaggerated. After all, journalists and pundits frequently tell us, investments from abroad are key to the uplift of poor nations, especially in this era of economic globalization.

But the truth is more complex — and the continent that President Clinton just visited is a prime example. You wouldn't know it from the usual media coverage, but foreign investors have brought widespread calamities to Africa.

The popular myth is that the West has poured humanitarian aid into Africa. But in the real world, more money is flowing out of Africa than into it. The reason? "Debt service" — the loan repayments, including interest and portions of the principal, required by banks and other lenders.

"Africa actually pays out more than four times as much on debt servicing ... than it spends on education and health services," scholar Deborah L. Toler reports in the April issue of Essence magazine. Toler, who lived and worked in Africa for many years, is a senior research analyst at the Institute for Food and Development Policy based in Oakland, Calif.

"Western economic exploitation continues through unfair trade practices and enforcement of crushing debt burdens," Toler writes. That's an update on the kind of analysis that Martin Luther King offered during his final years. It wasn't welcomed by U.S. news media then, and it doesn't seem to be any more appreciated now.

Like many other scholars and activists, Toler is highly critical of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — which, she contends, "are responsible for the economic hardships behind many conflicts in Africa today. To repay these two international lenders of last resort for loans taken out in the '70s and '80s, many countries have cut expenses on social services like schools and health clinics, and they've downsized by eliminating civil-service jobs."

What's more, Toler says, the lenders have undermined local agriculture: "Loan-repayment programs also force African governments to emphasize exporting to earn the foreign exchange to repay their loans. Trouble is, the emphasis on exports means less focus on growing food for local consumption, and small farmers are being pushed onto fragile lands where crop yields suffer."

In recent days, the news media have carried many tributes to Dr. King. Mostly, they stress his quest for racial equality — but shed little light on the challenge to economic injustice that increasingly preoccupied him.

Decrying enormous income gaps, King called for "radical changes in the structure of our society" to redistribute wealth and power. During his last months, he was organizing the Poor People's Campaign, "a multiracial army of the poor" that would converge on Washington. He accused Congress of "hostility to the poor" — appropriating "military funds with alacrity and generosity" but providing "poverty funds with miserliness."

"The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty," King said in early 1968. But in 1998, the big media outlets that trumpet his "dream" aren't repeating such words. Whether in Africa or America, the powerful have a very different agenda.