The Radical Legacy of Martin Luther King
I was born long after the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. Notwithstanding that, even in death he eerily feels like a moral tutor to me. An exemplary human being by any standard of morality, religious or secular; a genuine friend of the working man (and woman); a true democratic public intellectual; a modern day prophet and one of America’s great revolutionaries.
My spirits are always roused when I read the very powerful, yet eloquent A Letter From a Birmingham Jail, his famous defence of himself when being criticised by white southern ‘moderate’ clerics for being an “extremist” and urged him to show restraint and ‘patience’ in the face of injustice — translation: know your place Negro. That letter perfectly illustrated his unique ability to assert moral reason, ethical clarity and slash through pseudo complexities imposed by ‘moderates’, who are more concerned with the precise etiquette of those who resist oppression rather than directing their ire at the violence of the oppressor. He did this with righteous indignation whilst being erudite, icily polite and refusing to draw from the well of bitterness and hatred.
However, for all the immense respect and admiration I have for Dr. King. Sadly, I cannot celebrate the holiday that is named in his honour with one atom of enthusiasm. Not because it isn’t worth having, but because his national deification has meant his revolutionary legacy has been co-opted and whitewashed; robbing it of its subversive and radical content and made easily consumable to the status quo.
Americans, and the world at large, are subjected to a very sanitised and sterilised version of Dr. King that typically focuses on — and ends at- his nonviolent resistance struggle against the Jim Crow regime in the American South — alongside the brave students of the Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee (SNCC) — that ultimately led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Dr. King’s legacy since his death has been repackaged, re-imaged and doltishly condensed to ‘I Have a Dream’, the one speech we all know he gave. Some people act like that was the only speech he ever gave, and amazingly enough, there was only one line in it! We all know that line don’t you? Come on, say it with me:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”
This is perhaps the most overused (and misused) quote to the point of sterility in the meaningless and toothless discussions on ‘race relations’ in the United States. Dr. King’s dream of a non-racial society has been abused and bastardised to the point of serving as a fog to purposefully delude and blind Americans to the clear racial, economic and political problems that still persist and will not wither away.
The watering down of Dr.King’s vision is perhaps the biggest and saddest distortion of the civil rights movement. Desegregating the South was but one aspect of his vision to eliminate the “three evils” of society: racism, poverty and militarism from this world.
If you haven’t read the last book he wrote: Where Do We Go From Here: Between Community and Chaos, which clearly demonstrates the radical trajectory of his thinking in the latter years of his life, then you can’t claim to know Dr.King’s legacy. This book represents a side to Dr. King that more people should learn about. Dr. King’s last book makes painfully clear how much work he believed remained for American society in 1967, and it is hard to imagine he would approve of the state of the union in 2017, especially with Donald Trump at the helm.
King’s criticisms of American imperialism and the injustice of capitalism in the last few years of his life are glaringly omitted from the popular discourse. When he was assassinated in April 1968, he was in the middle of organising a ‘Poor People’s Campaign’, a multi-racial alliance of working class folks against poverty and economic inequality, while campaigning strongly against the Vietnam war.
In April 1967, King gave a speech titled Beyond Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York City where he called the U.S. government the “greatest purveyor violence in the world” and denounced napalm bombings and the propping up of the puppet government in South Vietnam.
The establishment responded with bitterness to King’s speech, including his former allies in the liberal press. The New York Times editorial board condemned King for linking the Vietnam war to the struggles of civil rights and poverty alleviation in the United States, saying it was “too facile a connection” and that he was doing a “disservice” to both causes. It concluded that there “are no simple answers to the war in Vietnam or to racial injustice in this country.” The editorial page of The Washington Post said King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country and his people.” Life magazine called the speech a “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi” (Robbins, Mary Susannah (2007). Against the Vietnam War: Writings by Activists).
In all, 168 newspapers denounced him the next day.
The Johnson administration immediately cut ties with King and was never invited him back to the White House because of the obvious embarrassment of an ally of the administration, in terms of civil rights, publicly condemning its most controversial policy. Johnson is reported to have remarked in a pit of rage, “What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me?”….”“We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the War on Poverty. What more does he want?”
King’s opposition to American imperialism in Indochina did not only create enemies among white northern liberals — who wished he would ‘stay in his lane’ by advocating for civil rights in the South and attacking racist sheriffs in Alabama and ignoring northern liberal hypocrisy on the hardships of blacks in the North and the plight of working people. He also received criticism from those within the black establishment, many of whom were comrades in the civil rights struggle.
Carl Rowan, a very influential African American journalist in that period argued in a column for Readers Digest that King’s denouncement of the Vietnam war, an active war against Communists would only increase doubts over King’s (and by inference African Americans) loyalty to the United States. He writes, “Negroes had, in fact, begun to grow uneasy about King…there was grumbling that his trips to jail looked liked publicity stunts”. He goes on. “King has alienated many of the Negro’s friends and armed the Negro’s foes in both parties, by creating the impression that the Negro is disloyal.” (Rowan, Carl T. (September 1967). “Martin Luther King’s Tragic Decision.” Reader’s Digest, 91(545), 37–42.)
A Harris poll conducted after King’s Vietnam speech found that only 25 percent of even African Americans supported him in his antiwar activism — “only 9 percent of the public at large agreed with his objections to the war.”
This reflected King’s radical evolution in his political advocacy. He realised that in order for America to truly achieve racial equality and justice for all in the real sense, not in the synthetic sense, then it would have to tackle the scourge of poverty and the hideous concentration of enormous wealth by a few. He said in a report to SCLC staff in 1967 that “We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed.”
Moreover he wrote in his proposed Economic Bill of Rights — which he did not have the chance to give due to his assassination:
“So we do not come here for charity, we demand justice. It took America almost two centuries to begin to understand that all men are not created equally so long as Negros are denied the right to vote, access to public accommodations and fundamental equality before the law. It cannot take two more centuries for it to occur to this country that there is no real right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for people condemned by the accident of their birth to an existence of hereditary economic and social misery. For if this goes on much longer, America will tear itself apart.”
Unfortunately this is not the side of Martin Luther King we are exposed to when discussing his ‘legacy’. All we are supposed to know of him is that he was a meek, harmless saint, who did not disturb the tranquil equilibrium of the prevailing consensus.
One of the tragic results of the deodorised canonisation of the great man has been the erasure of other great black activists and trade unionists like A.Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin from the civil rights record. The men mentioned did the organisation and the necessary heavy lifting to make the infamous march on Washington possible. Dr. King would be the first to ask us not to deify him, but to contextualise him in relation to the mass movement he was a part of. He was a wave in an ocean; a product of a particular black emancipatory tradition but a revolutionary universalist in his never ending quest for the emancipation of the human race.
His political and social philosophy can be summed up in one phrase: Justice for all. All meaning all. He advocated a global “revolution of values” that would first, throw the scourge of poverty into the dustbins of history. Second, seek an alternative method of resolving human disputes other than the destructive affair of war. And finally to abolish the proverbial walls and barriers that amputate us from seeing our common humanity and lead us to hate one another. This may be idealist and perhaps unrealistic, and maybe it it is. However, Martin Luther King and his ideas are a good standard for anyone who seeks to struggle for a better, more humane world and desires to fight against any form of oppression directed towards any human being no matter who they are.