A New Media Storyline for MLK (pt. 1)

Coming out against the Vietnam war: Martin Luther King Jr.
at Riverside Church, New York City, 4 April 1967

Today, 16 January, the people of the United States of America will recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday. And just as they have for most of the 31 years that the birthday of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been a nationally observed holiday, the American news media will basically get the story wrong.

Every year around this time, the storyline of the U.S. press goes
something like this:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. battled racial segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 [cue up: brief excerpts of violent police scenes against Black marchers], followed by a heartwarming speech later that year during a big public demonstration at the U.S. capital of Washington DC in which he shared his dream of future racial harmony in the USA [cue up: brief excerpts of “I Have a Dream” speech]. In 1965 King marched in Selma, Alabama for voting rights for African American citizens [cue up: more brief scenes of police violence against Black marchers]. And finally, in 1968 King was killed by the single bullet of a lone, crazed assassin, ending King’s dream forever [cue up: brief scene of a fatally injured King lying flat on his back on a second-floor motel walkway].

That’s how the American media version of Dr. King’s life has gone for most of the past 49 years since his death: with the sad tale of a nonviolent, naïve dreamer who stood up for the rights of his people but who died never having achieved his dream of racial harmony between black children and white children. Martin Luther King Jr. — the harmless, hopeless dreamer.

But King’s own actions during the last full year of his life tell us a much different story, one that the U.S. press establishment has never been comfortable with reporting in detail, in part because the press played a direct role in knocking King down at the time. Here are parts of the U.S. media’s yearly storyline on Martin Luther King Jr. and the national holiday in his name that have been all but erased from history and public memory:

• Vietnam war awakening — Rev. King, by his own account and that of others who knew him, was shown the January 1967 edition of Ramparts, a leftist political/literary magazine based in San Francisco, California, just after the magazine had come out. That issue of Ramparts featured a lengthy article by U.S. educator and activist William Pepper titled “The Children of Vietnam”, based on evidence he gathered during a trip to Vietnam. The report by Pepper featured shocking photos of innocent Vietnamese children who had been maimed or severely burned by napalm (jellied gasoline) used by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Rev. King would later say that once he saw on those pages of Ramparts the truth of what his own government was doing to innocent civilians in Vietnam, he knew he could never remain silent about the Vietnam war again, as he had been in the past.

• Coming out against war — From the pulpit of the interdenominational Riverside Church in downtown New York City (a church financed and built decades earlier by the wealthy Rockefeller family), Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gives one of the most important speeches of his life — if not the most important one. In “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, co-written with historian Vincent Harding, King speaks for about an hour and announces for the first time his opposition to the U.S. war of aggression on the Southeast Asian nation of Vietnam. “…I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos [of America] without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those [Black] boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent,” King declares.

King points out the cruel irony of young African American men being drafted in disproportionately high numbers to fight side by side with young white American men in Vietnam, burning down the villages of Vietnamese peasants together, while back at home in the USA those same young men of different races might not even be able to attend the same schools or live in the same neighborhoods.

The U.S. war on the people of Vietnam was a symptom of something deeper and more sinister, King says, than just a matter of simply fighting against communism abroad: The real enemy is capitalism at home in the USA, which had turned the nation into a “thing-oriented society”. King points out how the USA is increasingly on the wrong side of struggles for freedom around the world, and that it is time to look beyond the U.S. war in Vietnam to the real causes of war, poverty and racism. He calls for a “true revolution of values” in the USA, and quoting the Christian bible, urges America to support such a revolution: “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. ‘The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light’. We in the West must support these revolutions.”

King encourages young people in the USA to refuse to fight in the Vietnam war by becoming conscientious objectors. King is instantly welcomed into the broad anti-war movement in the USA, but is immediately ostracized and isolated among those, both Black and white, who think the “civil rights” struggle should be kept separate from the anti-Vietnam war movement. King’s direct access to U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat who had worked with Black leaders for civil rights in the past and who also dramatically escalated the U.S. war on Vietnam, is now gone forever.

King chose the language of nonviolent revolution, strong and clear, to make his case for coming out against the war. The date of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech was 4 April 1967 — a date that would figure significantly in his remaining life.

• Condemned by the press — The influential U.S. news media establishment reacted swiftly and strongly against King following his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The Washington Post publishes an editorial that ends on a merciless note with these words: “Dr. King has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies in a great struggle to remove ancient abuses from our public life; and he has done an even graver injury to himself. Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people. And that is a great tragedy” {*1}.

The New York Times publishes an editorial, titled “Dr. King’s Error”, in which it chastises King for trying to link together the fight for civil rights of Black people at home in the USA with the anti-war movement spreading across the nation, which the Times called “two public problems that are distinct and separate. By drawing them together, Dr. King has done a disservice to both” {*2}. A comparison by King in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech between the USA and Nazi Germany draws a swift rebuke from America’s newspaper of record: “…Dr. King can only antagonize public opinion in this country by recklessly comparing American military methods to those of the Nazis testing ‘new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe’. The facts are harsh, but they do not justify such slander.”

In severely criticizing King and his new anti-war stance, the big American media companies were essentially trying to put King in his place and strip him of his credibility among the public. But one thing that the
Washington Post and New York Times never bothered to tell the public at the time back in 1967 is that these two newspapers (and several other U.S. major news media outlets as well) had been maintaining close ties at the highest levels of their news companies to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the most powerful spy agency within the U.S. government, as this writer and others have documented {*3}. Such news organizations were far from being objective, neutral sources of reporting on King and his activities.

• Challenging press hypocrisy — A few weeks later, on 30 April 1967, Rev. King reconfirms his stance against the Vietnam war during a Sunday sermon that he preaches at his home church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In his sermon, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (text link here), King reiterates much of his earlier speech at the Riverside Church in New York, but with an important addition: He takes the American press to task for its hypocrisy in the way that news media companies reported on him both before and after he came out against the Vietnam war:

“There’s been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They’ve applauded our total movement and they’ve applauded me. America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery [Alabama in 1956], when I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, ‘We can’t do it this way’. They applauded us in the sit-in movement when we nonviolently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause and so noble in its praise when I was saying ‘Be nonviolent toward Bull Connor’, when I was saying ‘Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark’ [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff]. There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say ‘Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark’, but will curse and damn you when you say ‘Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children’. There’s something wrong with that press!”

“Three Evils” speech — Rev. King is the keynote speaker of a political gathering he helped organize in Chicago on 31 August and 1 September 1967 by the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP), a group of prominent intellectuals and activists on the political left who wanted to directly challenge the pro-war policies of both the Republican and Democratic parties. In this memorable but long-forgotten speech, King attacks what he calls the “three evils” of contemporary American society: racism, militarism and excessive materialism (speech transcript here). King, in putting his support behind the NCNP, saw much potential common ground to be tapped between the civil rights movement, with its focus on Black equality, and the broad anti-war movement of mostly white young people.

The NCNP conference this Labor Day weekend includes laying the groundwork for fielding an independent presidential candidate in the upcoming 1968 election. The presidential candidate nominated at the NCNP conference? Martin Luther King Jr. himself, with pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock nominated as King’s vice presidential running mate. (This first annual meeting of the NCNP turned out to be its last, due to the presence of
agents provocateurs and U.S. government infiltrators in the audience who managed to sabotage the group’s activities.)

• Poor people’s campaign — Rev. King ends the year 1967 by announcing on 4 December his next big campaign: taking the model of local marches against poverty in the U.S. South to the major cities of the North, and expanding them greatly in scale. The first target of this massive Poor People’s March: Washington DC, in spring of the coming year, to be followed by a series of major marches on other big northern U.S. cities as well.

“This will be no mere one-day march in Washington,” King says, but rather “a trek to the nation’s capital by suffering and outraged citizens who will stay until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor.” People will flood into Washington DC in their thousands, pitch tents, and lay claim to the financial resources and governmental policy priorities that are rightfully theirs as U.S. citizens, he states: “We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds”

King says this new anti-poverty campaign will involve a base of about 3,000 African American volunteers, and other volunteers across the racial spectrum, from at least 10 major northern U.S. cities, and grow from there. The human resources and networks of the anti-war/peace movement in the U.S. will be used to help carry out the poor people’s campaign at the grassroots level, he said, and all participants in the Poor People’s March are to be trained in nonviolent tactics of resistance. King emphasizes that this sustained, nonviolent campaign against poverty and war in the United States is a preferred alternative to the violent, destructive riots that are sure to engulf U.S. cities in the near future.

• Olympic boycott — Ten days later, on 14 December 1967, Rev. King enters a raging controversy in international sports when he announces his public support for Black American athletes who are threatening to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City the following year, refusing to playing as part of the U.S. team. This Olympic boycott, King says, is “a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice” toward Black athletes and other athletes who were being discriminated against {*5}.

(continued in part 2)

A New Media Storyline for MLK (pt. 2)

Cartoon_Shreveport Times_1967
Editorial cartoon, Shreveport Times
(Shreveport, LA), 13 Dec. 1967

(continued from part 1)

• 1968 — The new year of 1968 begins on a turbulent note with a severe routing of U.S. forces in South Vietnam as part of the successful “Tet offensive” of the North Vietnamese guerrilla fighters, exposing the lies of U.S. military commanders and President Johnson himself that the USA was winning the war in Vietnam. U.S. public opinion against the war rises steadily from this point onward. Rev. King, at this critical time, stands at the forefront of the nation’s anti-war movement. And, as the above editorial cartoon shows, King is being increasingly viewed by white America as a rabble-rouser and a "troublemaker" who needed to be dealt with; U.S. government agencies such as the FBI are treating King as public enemy No. 1.

• Shanty towns in Washington — Rev. King announces on 2 February 1968 that the ongoing plans for the kickoff of the massive Poor People’s March in Washington DC, scheduled for a few months later in April, are basically to occupy Washington. This will include the erecting of makeshift shantytowns by thousands of poor people in the nation’s capital as a symbol of the USA’s deep poverty problems. In doing so, he says, the poor people of America hope to provoke some drastic policy changes from the U.S. Congress and also appeal to the conscience of the nation.

King says that poor children joining the march, who are in dire need of medical treatment, will occupy the hospitals of Washington DC until they get treated, while other demonstrators will take their protest directly to their members of Congress, and still others will “descend upon government offices in waves”. King is seeking a reaction from the U.S. government: “We plan on staying [in Washington DC] until we get a response. If a response is not coming, we will escalate our methods. Disruptive measures will be used only as a last resort”

A few days later, on 8 February, Rev. King gives the U.S. government a price tag of at least $10 billion as the amount the government needs to urgently set aside in its fiscal budget to meet the job and income needs of the thousands of African Americans who will be joining the Poor People’s March in Washington DC a few months later. At a time when the U.S. government is spending billions of dollars on a losing war in Vietnam, King says, allocating $10 billion for the needs of poor Black people at home in the USA should not be hard to do

• “Unfulfilled Dreams” speech — On 3 March 1968, Rev. King preaches a Sunday sermon in Atlanta, Georgia at his home church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, on the theme of “Unfulfilled Dreams”. Speaking mostly in Biblical terms, King delivers a personal reflection and confession of sorts on his successes and failures. King was a man who always chose his words carefully, and the deeper meaning behind his words are hard to miss: Long gone are his optimistic “I Have a Dream” sentiments of racial harmony from five years before at the big March on Washington. That dream had not been fulfilled; the reality of racist violence and social upheaval still confronted his country. King speaks powerfully and prophetically to his congregation this morning, almost as if sensing he does not have much time left.

• Peace efforts in Africa — A few days later, it is confirmed that Rev. King will be joining a delegation of four other well-known African American leaders on a peacemaking mission to the African nation of Nigeria starting 15 April {*8}. The purpose of the mission is to help mediate between the two sides in the country’s civil war, which had begun the year before: the heavy-handed military government of Nigeria on one side, versus the Biafra region of the country that had seceded and declared itself an independent state on the other side. The underlying cause of the civil war was the supply of oil in the region. Millions of civilians in the Biafra region were reported to be starving to death due to a blockade by the Nigerian government, and relief efforts for Biafra were springing up all over the world.

While the U.S. government claims to be neutral in the conflict and thus offers no help to the millions of starving Nigerians, the U.S. is giving military assistance to the Nigerian government. American companies are heavily invested in the oil-rich region as well. By going to Nigeria as a peace broker, Martin Luther King Jr. is standing in direct contradiction to U.S. government policy in the Biafran war. But, it is reported, King will be back in the United States in time for the start of his massive Poor People’s March on Washington DC, which is moving ahead as scheduled for 22 April 1968.

• National Cathedral address — At the end of that month, on 31 March 1968, Rev. King preaches a Sunday morning sermon to an overflowing crowd of hundreds at the prestigious Washington National Cathedral in Washington DC, titling his talk “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”. He had given variations of this same sermon several times in the past, but this day it takes on a whole new meaning: His planned Poor People’s March on Washington DC is now just a few weeks away, and there is indeed a sense of revolution in the air.

King had evolved and come full circle since his “I Have a Dream” speech in this same city just five years before at the big March on Washington. This time, at the National Cathedral, he uses the metaphor of “being awake” as a sort of counterpoint to the dreaming of the past. Delivering this sermon was a masterful orator at work, crystalizing everything he had worked for up to this point. His eyes are wide open now to what he calls the “difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace”. But, he says, “I will not yield to a politic of despair. I’m going to maintain hope as we come to Washington in this campaign. The cards are stacked against us. This time we will really confront a Goliath. God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems, and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.”

In a press conference following his sermon, King confirms that the Poor People’s March will begin in Washington DC on 22 April as planned, followed later in the week by 3,000 to 4,000 selected demonstrators who will build shantytowns at a site within the city, symbolizing the need for the government to deal with poverty. That, in turn, will be followed by a much larger demonstration of hundreds of thousands of people coming to Washington DC on 15 June.

If that does not get any meaningful results from the U.S. government, King hints, then the Democratic Party’s upcoming 1968 election convention later that summer in Chicago might also be targeted for nonviolent protests — the Democrats “will have a real awakening”, he says — along with the Republican Party’s planned convention in Miami Beach, Florida
{*9}. King is turning up the heat as high as it could go on the political powers that be in America.

That heat was no doubt felt all the way across town at the White House, where, that very same evening of 31 March, President Lyndon Johnson announces in a televised address to the nation that he will not be running for re-election in the next presidential campaign. Johnson is a defeated president by then, having gone up against public opinion in escalating the war and losing that public support in the process. And it surely did not help Johnson to have Martin Luther King Jr. publicly opposing him and his policies, both domestic and foreign. King’s address at the National Cathedral that Sunday morning would be the last major speech of his life.

• Assassination — Rev. King’s planned trip to Africa as a diplomat for peace at the international level never took place. King is killed by the single bullet of an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee on 4 April 1968. That date is significant: It was exactly one year to the day since King had first come out against the Vietnam war in his speech at the Riverside Church in New York City.

The Poor People’s March on Washington went ahead in the wake of King’s killing that spring, however, with a few thousand volunteers setting up a tent camp called “Resurrection City”. A few months later, the police forcibly removed the volunteers and cleared the area. Without King to lead it, the poor people’s campaign all but withered and dried up, receiving few if any meaningful concessions from the U.S. government in addressing the problem of poverty throughout the nation. The American war in Vietnam would go on for another five years or so.

• “Lone crazed assassin” theory — Part of the U.S. news media storyline every year in commemorating the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is the tale of James Earl Ray, a petty criminal who had been in and out of jail, as the man who relentlessly stalks Rev. King during his final days out of racial animosity and finally catches up with him that day in Memphis when King steps out of his motel room at the Lorraine Motel and Ray shoots him to death.

But there is one big problem with the U.S. media’s reporting on James Ray as the killer of Rev. King: It never actually happened. The lone, crazed assassin theory is merely that — an official theory, and not a well-constructed one at that, as to how King was assassinated. The true facts of the killing of King, which have come out in bits and pieces in the decades since his death, provide us with a much different and more disturbing conclusion.

Ray fought for years from inside of prison, with the strong support of the surviving family members of Martin Luther King Jr. and some of King’s closest associates, to clear his own name in the notorious murder, and in demanding the public trial he had been denied from the beginning

Ray, the accused assassin, at one point retained as his attorney William Pepper, a former friend and associate of Martin Luther King Jr. It was Pepper, remember, who had published the shocking report for
Ramparts magazine back in 1967, “The Children of Vietnam”, that had been shown to King, eventually leading King to come out against the war in Vietnam in the first place.

Nobody has done more than attorney William Pepper, in fact, in establishing the closest thing to the truth regarding the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Pepper has published several books over the years on the King assassination
{*11}. In his research and investigation for those books, Pepper presents chilling evidence of King being under military surveillance and followed in his final weeks by a U.S. army special forces sniper team — right up to the moment King was killed.

And it was Pepper, as an attorney for the King family, who helped bring to trial the only court case ever held in relation to the death of Rev. King. In that case,
Coretta Scott King, et al, vs. Loyd Jowers, et al, the jury decided on 8 December 1999 that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed on 4 April 1968 as a result of a conspiracy that involved Loyd Jowers, a local Memphis restaurant owner, and also a conspiracy involving U.S. “governmental agencies”.

And the actual shooter of Martin Luther King Jr.? The shooter has been identified as Frank Strausser, a police officer with the Memphis Police Department (MPD) and a highly skilled marksman back in 1967. The MPD shooter fired the single, lethal shot at King from behind bushes just across the street from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King and his entourage were staying. The ensuing cover-up at various levels kept the MPD’s role in the assassination secret for years.

It had taken more than three decades for the truth to rise again about Rev. King’s death in the trial brought by Pepper and the King family, but it was now out. “This verdict is not only a great victory for my family, but also a great victory for America. It is a great victory for truth itself,” Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain leader,
said afterward.

And where was the American watchdog press during this trial of the century? Fast asleep as usual or busy chasing down other more titillating stories around that time, such as a presidential sex scandal and yet another U.S.-led war overseas. The 1999 conspiracy trial of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared nowhere on the
list of the top reported news stories of that year or, indeed, of that whole decade.

The wrap-up: Such media treatment should come as little surprise now in 2017, considering that while Rev. King was alive and pushing ahead with his activities for social and economic justice in the richest country on the planet, he was often vilified by the press in the U.S., from the local level up to the national level. In some cases, we now know, members of the news media even cooperated with U.S. government agencies such as the FBI to smear, discredit and otherwise distort King’s message and work. And yet the myth of a free, unfettered American press persists.

Today, 49 years after King’s death and 31 years since his birthday became a nationally observed holiday in the USA, the public still receives a media-washed version of King’s life that comes nowhere near to being complete or even correct on many counts. As we approach the half-century mark of King’s demise next year, it is more important than ever that people insist that Rev. King in death be reported on more accurately and fully as the social revolutionary he was in life — not as some mere harmless, hopeless dreamer, but rather someone who posed a real threat to the existing structures of political and economic power in the USA.

We will know we have succeeded in our insistence when a new U.S. media storyline of the observance Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, exactly a half-century after Rev. King’s death, is something more along these truthful lines:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for which today’s national holiday is named, battled racial segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 [cue up: extended footage of violent police scenes against Black marchers], followed by a heartwarming speech later that year during a big public demonstration at the U.S. capital of Washington DC in which he shared his dream of future racial harmony in the USA [cue up: footage of “I Have a Dream” speech]. In 1965 King marched in Selma, Alabama for voting rights for African American citizens [cue up: more extended footage of police violence against Black marchers], and was instrumental in getting a historic voting rights bill passed into law that year.

In 1967, King spoke out for the first time against the U.S. war on the sovereign nation of Vietnam and the many civilian deaths that war was causing [cue up: news footage of dead Vietnamese families killed by U.S. soldiers + King’s speech at Riverside Church]. He was attacked in the U.S. press after his “Beyond Vietnam” speech [cue up: close-up shots of critical newspaper articles]. In the last year of King’s life, he increasingly spoke of “revolution” and of waking up from the dream [cue up: audio/video of King’s National Cathedral speech]. King was organizing a series of massive Poor People’s Marches, starting with one on Washington DC planned for the spring of 1968, demanding that poverty be addressed in the United States, when he was cut down by a single bullet from an assassin [cue up: scene of a fatally injured King lying flat on his back on a second-floor motel walkway].

The initial suspect, James Earl Ray, was imprisoned for the shooting. Ray long maintained his innocence in the killing, and was even supported in his quest for a public trial by the King family itself. Ray eventually died in prison without ever getting his full trial. The real killer of Martin Luther King Jr., meanwhile, has been identified since then as a Memphis Police Department sharpshooter, officer Frank Strausser.

A historic civil lawsuit was brought in 1999 by the King family [cue up: footage of Coretta Scott King giving testimony at the trial]. The final jury verdict in that trial was that U.S. “governmental agencies” had been involved in a “conspiracy” to assassinate Dr. King. But why would the U.S. government want King dead?

That question remains unanswered today. Perhaps it had something to do with Dr. King being seen as a very real threat to the government and to the favored status of major corporations in American society in his demands for an end to war, racism and militarism — and for more U.S. tax money to be spent on the millions of Americans who lived, and continue to live, below the poverty line in our country. After all, just a few months before his death, he was laying the groundwork for standing as a U.S. presidential candidate in the 1968 presidential election. In the last one year of his life, especially, King was becoming more radicalized in his political views and actions, thus becoming a thorn in the side of the political and corporate powers-that-be in the United States. He had to be removed, permanently, from the scene.

This year marks 50 years since Dr. King’s death, and today’s national holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is a day of reflection and action for a man many consider to be one of the most remarkable public figures of the last century: a Baptist preacher by profession, a revolutionary thinker and nonviolent social activist for peace, a tireless advocate for racial equality and economic justice in the USA. Has his dream been achieved? Will it ever be achieved?

That, of course, will be up to us.


{*1} “A Tragedy” (editorial), Washington Post, 6 April 1967, p. A20.

{*2} “Dr. King’s Error” (editorial), New York Times, 7 April 1967, p. 36.

{*3} Brian Covert, “Played by the Mighty Wurlitzer: The Press, the CIA, and the Subversion of Truth”, in Censored 2017 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2016), pp. 251-284.

{*4} United Press International (UPI), “King Vows Capital Marches”, Chicago Tribune, 5 December 1967, p. 1A-9, and Associated Press (AP), “King Plans March of Poor on Washington”, Danville Register (Danville, VA), 5 December 1967, p. 8-B.

{*5} Associated Press, “Dr. King Backs Negro Boycott”, Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM), 15 December 1967, p. D-1.

{*6} Associated Press, “Shanties in Capital Planned by King for Poor People’s March”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 February 1968, p. 8.

{*7} Associated Press, “Key to Job Demands”, Kansas City Times (Kansas City, MO), 8 February 1968. p. 16C.

{*8} Associated Press, “Martin Luther King Plans Nigerian Visit”, Kane Republican (Kane, PA), 9 March 1968, p. 3.

{*9} Associated Press, “Dr. King Threatens Convention Protests”, The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), 1 April 1968, p. 12.

{*10} See James Earl Ray, Who Killed Martin Luther King?: The True Story by the Alleged Assassin (Washington DC: National Press Books, 1992). Foreword by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a former close associate of King.

{*11} See William F. Pepper, Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1995), and William F. Pepper, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King (London/New York: Verso, 2008). Pepper’s latest book is The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016).

Castro’s Most Enduring Legacy: An African Story

Say the words “Cuito Cuanavale” to the average American citizen, liberal and conservative alike, and you’re likely to get a blank stare in response. Add the name “Fidel Castro” to that phrase and you’ll instantly notice a nervous tick in their squinting eyes. Dare to throw the word “hero” into the mix and you’ll see a definite jerking motion in their knees and a reddening in the face.

“BUT CASTRO WAS A BRUTAL DICTATOR!!!!!” is what usually comes next (give or take an exclamation mark or two), followed by saliva dripping from the corners of their mouths, a clenching of their fists and an aggressive posture toward you. Symptoms resembling an epileptic seizure may even appear in the more rabid citizens. Like Dr. Pavlov’s famous laboratory dogs, U.S. citizens are trained by their corporate-driven news media to react a certain way to the sound of the name of Cuba’s long-reigning leader, who recently passed away at the age of 90.

Yet mention the words “Cuito Cuanavale” to people in other parts of the world, especially African and Latin America countries, and you’re liable to get a whole different response altogether. There, you’re more likely to get a knowing smile, a nodding of the head and an affirmation of what a hero Fidel Castro truly was in his lifetime — how he stood up to the forces of racism and imperialism in the world, and came away triumphant.

That victory, however, took place not on the shores of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba or even on American soil in New York City, home of Harlem and the United Nations, where Castro sometimes visited when he was alive. No, Castro’s most enduring legacy is arguably one that most of the U.S. press is not evening touching these days in the wake of the Cuban leader’s death. It occurred on the continent of Africa decades ago, and this is the story behind it.

Prelude to a Victory

Among the selected international heads of state who had the honor of paying homage to the deceased South African president Nelson Mandela at a massive Soweto stadium memorial service on 13 December 2013 was Raúl Castro, president of Cuba.
Castro referred to the late Mandela as “the ultimate symbol of dignity and unwavering dedication to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and justice — a prophet of unity, peace, and reconciliation.”

“Cuba, a country born in the struggle for independence and for the abolition of slavery, and whose children have African blood in their veins, has had the privilege of fighting and building alongside the African nations,” said Castro. He spoke of Mandela’s “moving homage to our common struggle” in the past and the “bond of affection” shared between his brother Fidel Castro, the aging former leader of Cuba, and the late Mandela as a “symbol of the fraternal relations between Africans and Cubans.”

The manic focus of American press coverage, however, was on a diplomatic handshake at the event between Raúl Castro and U.S. president Barack Obama, whose respective countries had not had official relations since the U.S. severed them in the early 1960s.
USA Today breathlessly called it the “handshake that shocked the world”. News reports widely repeated one U.S. senator’s likening of Obama’s handshake with Castro to shaking hands with German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. And not to be left out, Fox News dutifully propagated the U.S. right-wing political outrage that all but called for Obama’s head for daring to make such a gesture to a murderous “thug”.

Beyond all the hype of this typical U.S. media-created “controversy”, however, there was another far more important and legitimate news story about South Africa that was
going unreported in the American press: the vital role that Cuba, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, had played on the battlefield in helping to bring down the brutal South African apartheid regime at a time when the USA was busy propping it up.

This news story dates all the way back to 1965. It was then when Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara secretly went to Africa in support of the Congolese liberation guerrilla army, following the Congo’s independence from its former colonial power of Belgium. While there in the Congo, Guevara met leaders of another African guerrilla force fighting against Portuguese colonial rule in the nearby southern African nation of Angola, the “Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola” (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola), or MPLA. Guevara promised, and eventually delivered, Cuban military instructors and soldiers to the MPLA that would fight alongside the Angolans in southern Africa for as long as they were needed

In 1974 in Europe, the right-wing government of Portugal was unexpectedly overthrown in a military coup. With Portugal’s centuries-long colonial grip now gone, the African nation of Angola was finally poised to get its own independence. The MPLA’s leader, Agostinho Neto, an Angolan medical doctor firmly supported by the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc of nations (including Cuba), was the heir apparent to power in Angola. But the USA had much different plans in mind.

The U.S. government, under president Gerald Ford, saw the coming independence of the resource-rich Angola under the communist-supported Neto as a strategic threat, both ideologically and economically. Through its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the U.S. government backed two other rival anti-government guerrilla armies in Angola — the FNLA (supported by neighboring Zaire) and UNITA (supported by apartheid South Africa) — to fight the MPLA and prevent it from coming legitimately into power.

The first big attack came in October 1975, on the eve of Angola’s independence, when apartheid South Africa sent its army across the borders of Namibia — a neighboring nation that South Africa had been illegally occupying for decades — and into Angola. “[W]e couldn’t just sit and watch,” said then-Cuban president Fidel Castro. “And when the MPLA asked for our help, we offered the aid necessary to prevent apartheid being installed in Angola”

The “aid necessary” turned out to be a contingent of Cuban special military forces, more than 30,000 Cuban foot soldiers and a host of Soviet-made weaponry. Due in great part to Cuba’s support, the South African army, the most powerful military on the entire continent of Africa, was beaten back. Angola’s national independence went ahead a month later as planned in November 1975, with Neto becoming its first president.

The USA and South Africa, however, continued working together, both overtly and covertly, to bring down the newly independent African nation of Angola through civil war.

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale

For a dozen years, the government of Angola, with the military support of Cuba and the Soviet Union, fought off its two remaining domestic guerrilla forces, which were being backed by South Africa and the United States. A small country town in the south of Angola, Cuito Cuanavale, where two rivers meet, was where it all came to a head — the last “hot battle” in the world to be fought during the long Cold War period.

In late 1987 the South African military once again crossed over into Angola from its bases in occupied Namibia in support of the Angolan UNITA guerrilla army. And the Angolan government once again urgently requested backup from Cuba. Fidel Castro sent over tens of thousands of volunteer troops from Cuba, Soviet-made tanks, anti-aircraft weapons and, for the first time, military aircraft and pilots to join the Angolan air force in fighting the South African military, both in the air and on the ground. The fighting went on for about half a year

By early 1988 the Cuban military presence in Angola had contributed significantly to a defensive victory: saving the key battleground of Cuito Cuanavale. An offensive followed, with Cuban troops helping to push the South African Defense Forces back across the border into Namibia
[*4]. By summer 1988, it was all over. Although South Africa maintained that its military retreated on its own accord as “winners”, there could be no doubt that without Cuban support in the 13-year-long war, the independent nation of Angola would have fallen long before to the combined might of apartheid South Africa and the United States.

The siege at Cuito Cuanavale was
a military turning point that brought the Angola-Namibia border war to an end. That, in turn, led to a U.S.-brokered “peace plan” that saw the withdrawal of both South African and Cuban forces from Angola and Namibia, as well as the independence of Namibia from apartheid occupation soon afterward. Many in the South African liberation movement, not least Mandela himself, always saw Cuito Cuanavale as the straw that broke apartheid’s back — the decisive battle, along with domestic and international pressure, that eventually helped to weaken the apartheid regime of South Africa sufficiently enough that it was forced to negotiate with Mandela and the ANC for the future of a democratic South Africa.

Mandela, following his release from prison in February 1990, made his first visit to Cuba a year later. Standing on a stage alongside Cuban president Fidel Castro and addressing an outdoor rally crowd of thousands on what was the 38th anniversary of Cuba’s revolution on 26 July 1991, Mandela said that the “decisive defeat of the apartheid aggressors [in Angola] broke the myth of invincibility of the white oppressors”
[*5]. “The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today,” Mandela told the massive crowd of Cubans. “Cuito Cuanavale has been a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid” [*6].

The U.S. corporate-dominated media had their own take on this historical meeting between the two leaders. The
Los Angeles Times, reporting from Havana, termed Mandela’s three-day visit to thank the Cuban people for their support against apartheid an “unhesitant embrace of Cuban President Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution.”

“Hugging on the dais, the two men made an odd couple,” the
Times reporter observed. But such a gesture would seem “odd” only if you did not factor in, as the U.S. media had not bothered to do, the more than 300,000 Cuban troops, 2,000-plus Cuban military deaths and thousands of Cuban civilian aid workers that Fidel Castro had committed to the cause of freedom in southern Africa for almost a quarter of a century [*7].

Two decades later in South Africa, at Mandela’s memorial service, the American news media were all agog over a handshake between another Cuban leader and a U.S. president. Then, as now, the American media missed the real news story entirely: that when all the dust over four decades of apartheid in South Africa had settled and Nelson Mandela and his people were finally free, it was Fidel Castro and Cuba that stood on the right side of history and the USA that stood, to its eternal shame, on the wrong side. That story of what is arguably Castro’s most enduring legacy remains unreported today by the U.S. corporate press in the wake of his recent death, and will probably continue to go unreported or misreported for years to come.

Epilogue: A New Bone for the Dog

U.S. citizens are about to get a taste of what a “brutal dictator”
really looks like within the coming months, when an obscenely wealthy, unacceptably racist Wall Street businessman with a neo-fascist political agenda becomes their next president — the so-called Leader of the Free World. The abuse of power that Donald Trump will exercise from the White House in Washington DC these next few years is expected to pale in comparison to any failings shown by Fidel Castro when he was president of Cuba.

While Castro was no angel and certainly made his share of political mistakes, most of the people of the world recognize that Castro did turn Cuba’s economy around and oversaw the restructuring of his nation’s educational, medical and social welfare sectors — which now rank far higher than those of the United States on just about any indexes you care to name. Likewise, even though Castro surely had his share of political opponents and enemies in the world, he has still received, and will continue to receive, far more genuine respect from the international community than Donald Trump could ever hope to get.

Not least on the continent of Africa, where, it could rightfully be said, Castro’s most enduring legacy lies. He dared to have his Caribbean nation, located just 90 miles off the coast of the Yankee mainland, stand side by side on a battlefield halfway across the world in the global fight against white racial supremacy by South Africa and the USA.

So, Pavlov dogs of America: Unite! You are about to experience what it means to have the people of the world accusing you of “human rights abuses” at every turn and having doors that used to be open to you slammed shut in your face. You will be thrown a bone every now and then, sure, when countries like North Korea or China or Iran do something really bad and earn your rabid displeasure. But your knee-jerk reaction to all the sins being committed by countries that you don’t like will look mighty hypocritical indeed, considering your own government will now be the source of many such abuses in the world.

Hey, who knows? Out of all this you may even find enough humility, in what little soul you’ve got left as the most powerful nation on Earth, to reach out and ask the Cuban people for some help. After all, they and their departed leader, Mr. Castro, are known for kicking some serious butt and getting the job done — skills you may well need in the not-too-distant future in dealing with your own domestic devils and internal terrorism.

Cuito Cuanavale. Remember those words well and what they meant to people in other parts of the world in the past century, especially in Africa, and why they remain so important a part of Fidel Castro’s legacy today in the wake of his recent death. And please, from now on, refrain from dribbling down the front of your clothes when the mere mention of his name is made in your presence. It’s so unbecoming of you.


[*1] Background information from the DVD Cuba, une Odyssée Africaine (Cuba, an African Odyssey), Arte France, 2007. This epic three-hour, French-made documentary film stands as perhaps the definitive cinematic source on the subject of Cuba and the liberation struggles of Africa.
[*2] Quoted in
Cuba, une Odyssée Africaine.
[*3] Piero Gleijeses, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 408-09. See also Horace Campbell, “Cuito Cuanavale — a Tribute to Fidel Castro and the African Revolution”, Pambazuka News, June 3, 2008.
[*4] Gleijeses,
Visions of Freedom, 425-430. For an interview with author Gleijeses on the subject, see also “The Secret History of How Cuba Helped End Apartheid in South Africa”, Democracy Now!, December 11, 2013.
[*5] Quoted in Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro,
How Far We Slaves Have Come! (Atlanta: Pathfinder Press, 1991), 23-24.
[*6] Ibid. For a video record of meetings between Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro, see also
Mandela y Fidel (Mandela and Fidel, 2013), a short documentary film by U.S. filmmaker Estela Bravo.
[*7] Gleijeses,
Visions of Freedom, 521.

A Pardon for Peltier


The Honorable Barack H. Obama II
President, United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500, USA

Dear President Obama:

You have many important domestic and international and issues before you at the moment that require your time and attention, and the fate of a 71-year-old man in failing health who has been in prison on U.S. soil for more than 40 years for a crime that, by all credible accounts, he did not commit is probably not among your highest priorities.

But I am writing you as a United States citizen living overseas — as one voice currently among many thousands of people around the world — to ask you to make this imprisoned man’s life your priority before your term as president ends in just a few more months. I ask you to grant executive clemency to Leonard Peltier.

As a constitutional law scholar, you are probably familiar by now with Mr. Peltier’s name and his case. As a descendant of the Anishinabe and Lakota indigenous nations of North America, Mr. Peltier was active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) of the 1960s and 1970s in standing up for his people’s rights and holding the USA accountable for broken treaties made with First Nations peoples in the past.

Mr. Peltier was with other AIM activists at a spiritual camp on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota — one of the most poverty-stricken areas of the United States — one day in June 1975, when two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) appeared suddenly on the scene without warning. A shootout ensued, and the two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, as well as a Native American member of AIM, Joseph Stuntz, were killed in the exchange of gunfire.

The FBI put the full weight of its investigative powers into hunting Peltier down and later getting him extradited from Canada, where he had fled following the shootout at Pine Ridge. He has been behind bars ever since in various U.S. prisons; currently he is imprisoned at maximum-security U.S. Penitentiary Coleman I in the state of Florida, serving the remainder of two life sentences.

But from the start, the FBI’s case against Mr. Peltier was flawed, to put it mildly.

Ballistics tests by the FBI have never conclusively linked Mr. Peltier to the killing of the two FBI agents. Tainted evidence and false testimony by alleged witnesses who were pressured by the FBI were used to get Mr. Peltier convicted. Even the U.S. government’s lead prosecutor, Lynn Crooks, admitted in a court session in the 1990s that nobody really knows who shot and killed those FBI agents that day on Pine Ridge back in 1975. A former judge who had presided over Mr. Peltier’s early court cases,
the late Gerald Heaney, went on to insist that Mr. Peltier deserved clemency.

Mr. Peltier, for his part, has confirmed that he was there at the Pine Ridge shootout that day, but has always maintained his innocence in the unfortunate deaths of the two FBI agents.

Among the
many persons around the globe who have called for Leonard Peltier’s release from prison in the USA over the years are two people you deeply respect, President Obama: the late Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, also of South Africa. Mr. Mandela served 27 years for a crime he did not commit; by comparison, Mr. Peltier is now in his fourth decade of incarceration in the USA for a crime that he too did not commit. Archbishop Tutu has called for Peltier to be granted parole and released due to a “failed” U.S. justice system.

Mr. Peltier’s health is also failing him. He has not received the medical attention he desperately needs, and the prison authorities seem to be in no hurry to allow him to get well soon. His time is running out, and he and his family and supporters are appealing one last time for Mr. Peltier to be released before his health takes a turn for the worse and it becomes too late.

Mr. Peltier
shared these sentiments in a letter he released earlier this year on June 26, which marked 41 years to the day since the shootout at Pine Ridge that later led to his imprisonment: “As the last remaining months of President Obama’s term pass by, my anxiety increases. I believe that this president is my last hope for freedom, and I will surely die here if I am not released by January 20, 2017.”

For First Nations peoples throughout the U.S., Mr. Peltier’s treatment at the hands of the authorities over these past four decades has represented one travesty of justice in a long line of injustices over the past few centuries. President Obama, you have some credibility among Native American communities in the U.S. — please use that credibility and do the right thing. Release Leonard Peltier to his family and his people right away. Let the healing begin to take place that needs to take place.

As you may recall, the last time that a U.S. president grappled with the decision to grant executive clemency to Leonard Peltier was back in late 2000, as President Bill Clinton was leaving office. President Clinton eventually decided to leave Mr. Peltier behind in prison and, instead,
granted a pardon to one of the president’s own wealthy supporters, a billionaire who was then hiding out overseas to escape prosecution for the U.S. federal crime of tax evasion. President Obama, please do not make the same mistake that your predecessor in the White House, Mr. Clinton, did: Release Mr. Peltier unconditionally with a full pardon. Forty years is long enough for anyone to have to wait for justice in the USA. You now have the political authority and the opportunity to make sure that justice is finally done in the case of Mr. Peltier, and by extension, to all of his people.

No doubt you would be roundly condemned by the FBI for daring to call for Mr. Peltier’s release — just as many of Mr. Peltier’s supporters, at home and abroad, have been criticized over the years for daring to stand up and demand that justice be done in the case of Mr. Peltier. But it is a call you must make, President Obama, and soon, before Mr. Peltier’s time truly does run out. In any case, you can rest assured that you would have the support of many, many more people around the world, should you decide that Mr. Peltier is to receive a presidential pardon. History would certainly be on your side for doing the right thing at the end of your presidency.

Let justice take its well-deserved course, and let the long-overdue closure begin with Leonard Peltier’s first steps outside of a prison cell, which he should never have been sent to in the first place. Let Mr. Peltier, now a respected elder, live out the remainder of his days in the care and comfort of his family and community, serving society in ways he sees fit.

Mr. President, I cannot urge you strongly enough to grant a pardon to Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier before you leave office. Please make his release from prison after 40 years a top priority in the months to come.

Respectfully yours,

Brian Ohkubo Covert
Kawanishi, Japan

For further reference:
International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee
Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance (excerpts, 2000) by Leonard Peltier
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (excerpts, 1992 updated edition) by Peter Matthiessen
Warrior — The Life of Leonard Peltier documentary film (1992)
Incident at Oglala documentary film (1992)

We are Sandra Bland

During the worst years of apartheid in South Africa, it was not uncommon for a person, usually Black and poor, to be arrested by police and then just disappear — never to be heard from or seen again. Suicide while in police custody, especially by hanging, was often listed as the official cause of such deaths.

Not even the well-known Black Consciousness Movement leader
Steve Biko was exempt from police abuse. Biko, South African police said, had died of a “hunger strike” at age 30 while in jail in September 1977; it came out much later that he had died after being tortured by the country’s notorious security police and then refused the proper medical treatment. A cover-up of Biko’s death had taken place all the way to the top of the South African government. Biko’s crime? Being caught out of his designated “banning area” after curfew one night.

In the case of Ms. Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African-American citizen, the “crime” was a much simpler and thus more insidious one: a very minor traffic violation in Texas in July that led to her being arrested on a major felony charge. She was found to have killed herself by hanging in her jail cell three days later. Bland’s surviving family members do not believe the official ruling that she took her own life while behind bars, and neither do I. Looking closely at all the facts in the case, it's not hard to come to the conclusion that an official police cover-up of some kind was (and still is) in place.

The family has recently
filed a lawsuit seeking justice in the case, and I hope they get it. Her death did not need to happen; indeed, she should have never been cited for any traffic violation at all, let alone violently threatened, manhandled and arrested by a white police officer. But in apartheid USA, as in the apartheid state of South Africa, that is the reality that people of color are facing today.

My blood boils whenever I read about or see videos of American police officers abusing otherwise innocent U.S. citizens at gunpoint, especially African-American citizens, often killing them on the spot regardless of whether or not they obey the police officer’s barked commands. And how many fathers among us do not seethe in rage when we see scenes of Black children being pushed, shoved, grabbed at, cursed at or even shot and killed at point-blank range by a white public servant in a police uniform? Any one of those abused kids could be our own kids, and if we are not angry about that fact alone, then there something is wrong with us.

The case of Sandra Bland, as sad and unnecessary as it was, is reportedly only part of a
larger trend of rising suicide rates in U.S. jails in recent years. Do those rising rates reflect actual prisoner suicides while in detention — or deaths that were successfully covered up as “suicide” by police? Either way, we can see it as part of a much bigger societal problem that seems vastly underreported by the U.S. corporate-owned news media.

Other countries’ media seem to be doing a better job of putting all the U.S. police violence in the proper context of a growing American military-police state.
The Guardian newspaper of Britain, for one, has been chronicling all deaths at the hands of police in the U.S. this year in an interactive database titled “The Counted”. If you want to see what apartheid America really looks like in these early decades of the 21st century, this is a good place to start.

If it can happen in South Africa, it can happen in the United States of America: police harassment, unnecessary or illegal arrests, deaths in detention, “suicide” of prisoners while behind bars, tainted investigations. And it’s going to keep on happening until people, in great numbers in the United States, look this bureaucratic beast in the eye and come together to stop it before one more innocent Black life is taken.

U.S. leaders, President Barack Obama included, have been too busy in the past wagging their finger at the other “naughty” nations of the world about their human rights records to do anything at home about the corruption that is endemic to police agencies nationwide in the USA. But the countries that make up the United Nations have no such illusion or hesitation. The UN Human Rights Council
recently released a scathing report condemning the U.S. for its violence at home and abroad, for racial discrimination and for police violence against Black men.

Change only happens when people band together in very large numbers to raise hell and say “Enough is enough”. History has shown us that countless times. Sandra Bland, from what little we do know about her tragic case, at least did not go down quietly. And we shouldn’t either. We are all Sandra Bland — I am, and you are too — and when we get to that point where we can connect the circumstances surrounding her precious life and heartbreaking death to our own existence, then this corrupt system we call “America” may possibly be changed for the better.

But if we just sit back and watch like some helpless spectators at a Roman lion’s den, then the suspicious suicides while in police custody will continue on and on. If a minor traffic violation in apartheid USA is all it takes nowadays to “disappear” into the jail system and never be seen alive again, as it was with Sandra Bland, then watch out: The next traffic ticket that any one of us, whether U.S. or foreign citizen, receives from some so-called peace officer in the U.S. could easily be our last.

Being Sexually Tolerant

The Wall Street Journal has reported, along with much of the major media of the world, the recent historic United States Supreme Court decisions in favor of gay rights — a hopeful sign of increased tolerance of sexual orientation and sexual preference issues in the US of A.

In 1996 the “liberal” president Bill Clinton passed a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that legally defined a married “spouse” as being only heterosexual. The law also allowed some U.S. states to refuse to recognize the marriage of a gay couple that was legally performed in other states. DOMA was considered at that time to be a major setback for gay rights in the U.S., and it undoubtedly stripped Bill Clinton of some his of liberal credentials and support back then.

On June 26, just a few days ago, the Supreme Court ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional, striking down the law that had long denied federal benefits to legally married gay couples.

The Supreme Court, in another ruling that day, also reconfirmed that Proposition 8, a voter initiative passed in 2008 that ended same-sex marriage in the supposedly “liberal” state of California, was unconstitutional and violated people’s equal rights. California is now set to once again allow gay marriages within a month or so.

To his credit, president Barack Obama has spoken out on gay rights issues in the past, and while I strongly disagree with most of his international and domestic policies, I think it’s important to credit Obama for taking a stand in favor of gay rights. “When all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love,” he said, “we are all more free.” Bravo to Obama on that score.

It is important for sexual tolerance to be embraced at the highest levels of politics and business in the U.S., whoever is in charge. Tolerance in sexual matters, as with tolerance of race, gender, religion and other perceived “differences” between people, is something I am strongly in favor of. I am proud to stand up in favor of equal rights for our gay brothers and sisters, and am delighted to celebrate with the gay community around the world in their recent legal victory in the U.S.

In my case, I think sexual tolerance is something I learned early on as a youth, and for that I am thankful. As a teenager during my high school years, I worked at a local supermarket in a suburb of Los Angeles, California (Top Valu Market, where my mother also worked). The management of the store hired a number of gay men and women as employees, especially as cashiers at the front checkout area. Some of those employees were openly gay and some were not as open, but in any case, I got to work alongside them and know them in the workplace first as co-workers and later as friends.

Looking back now, I consider that period of my life working at the supermarket as a kind of education in which I was learning firsthand about sexual tolerance — long before I actually did leave home and go off into the world and study formally at university back in the early 1980s.

I learned a very important thing in those teenage years: that judging someone based on their sexual identity (as with race) was a very weak foundation indeed upon which to judge someone. A far more reliable standard was judging people, whether gay or straight or anywhere in between, by the content of their character.

Some of my gay co-workers at the supermarket were very honest and hard working, and some of the other gay co-workers were dishonest and a bit lazy. I learned to tell the difference between them. And on the basis of honesty and hard work, I could find no difference at all between the gays and the straights who also worked at the supermarket. I learned sexual tolerance by watching and listening and not being too quick to judge.

Unfortunately, that standard was not always embraced by some of my other fellow employees of the supermarket.

The only time I can ever really remember being hit on by a gay person was one day (a Friday or Saturday evening), when, after a hard day at work at the market, I was invited by two co-workers — a gay woman about my age (Black, with a big Afro, nicknamed “R.C.”) and a young gay men (James, white, blond-haired, who attended the same high school I did) — to go out and unwind with a few rounds of bowling. I thought about it, knew I could take care of myself in a jam if need be, and didn’t want to rush to judgment against them. Plus, I liked R.C. and trusted her. So I said yes.

My mother was still working next door at the supermarket, so I left a note on the kitchen table saying that I was going bowling with the two co-workers and would be back soon. They drove me to the bowling alley, we bowled a few rounds, and then the two asked me if I wanted to go to a nearby bar for a couple of beers. I grinned; I had kind of expected it. I told them I’d had a good time bowling, but no thanks, I was ready to head back home now. They said “Fine,” and proceeded to drive me back home. No hard feelings on either of our sides.

The moment the car pulled up in front of my house to drop me off, though, my mother (by now finished from work) was out in the front yard in a flash. She ordered me to go into the house. I told her nothing had happened, that we just got back from bowling, and that was it. She then turned her wrath to R.C.: “You stay away from my son, you understand!” I started to come to R.C.’s defense, but mother turned to me with a beet-red face and smoke literally coming out of her ears: “I said, get in the house!” This was all happening right out in our front yard, with traffic going by and within easy earshot of the neighbors.

Being the obedient son that I was (some of the time), I did as I was told, but watched the scene unfold from inside the house behind the living room windows, not quite believing what I was seeing. My mother cussed R.C. out, up one side and down the other, for trying to take advantage of me, her son. My mother needn’t have worried about my possibly “straying” (as she used to call such things) because I was just too girl-crazy as a teenager and was not curious about what gayness entailed, not even remotely.

I watched as R.C. stood there in the front yard for a few long moments, getting publicly berated by a fellow co-worker (my mother). R.C. didn’t say a word, smiled, kind of shook her head in bemusement, then calmly got in her car and drove off. My mother stormed back into the house, still fuming, and we never spoke about that episode between us again during her lifetime. I did see R.C. at work after that but never mentioned it to her either — although I felt at the time that I should apologize to her on behalf of my mother, who, while obviously looking out for me, proved to be as ignorant and intolerant of gays as any other narrow-minded straight person I knew.

I learned the virtue of being open-minded and non-judgmental about sexuality during those supermarket years, and that lesson served me well later on in dealing with other matters at a personal level, including in my relationships with women when I was single.

A few of the women I had been in relationships with back then, both in the U.S. and in Japan, had hinted at being bisexual and kind of talked around it, as if testing the waters to see if I could handle it, but never really came right out and said it. And I never pressed them about it. One Japanese woman I was with in my late 20s, back in the late 1980s here in Japan, actually did come right out and tell me she was bi. We talked about it for a little bit, then didn’t discuss it again. It simply was not that important to me. I really appreciated her honesty and her taking a risk to trust me with the truth. It didn’t affect our relationship at all — emotionally, sexually or in any other way. Again, I found the “content of character” rule had served me well.

Do the latest Supreme Court rulings in the United States mark a similar kind of sexual tolerance and trust? Let us hope so. And in our hoping, it would be wise for us to remember that differences in sexual orientations have been a part of human culture on this planet since the beginning of time. In fact, in many indigenous cultures, homosexual men and women tended to be more widely accepted in their traditional societies than in many of the so-called “civilized” industrialized societies of today.

I study spiritual matters a lot and I’ve found that in quite a few indigenous cultures — including in North America — not only were homosexual, bisexual or other such persons accepted by their own societies, in many cases they were considered to be more spiritually advanced as shamans and medicine healers than other straight persons because, as gays, they walked in “two worlds” at the same time instead of just one.

Which all boils down to this one basic truth: Gay people have always been a vital part of all human societies throughout history, they are a vital part of human societies today, and to put it in a way that most Americans could grasp, gay people ain’t going anywhere anytime soon: They’re here to stay, as everybody else is, and the more tolerant we can be of those who walk their own path in Life, whether by choice or by nature, the better off we’ll all be.

And you can take
that undeniable truth to the bank — or better yet, to the checkout line of your friendly neighborhood supermarket, wherever you happen to be.
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