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.
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.