As we approach the holiday honoring the life and legacy of the one of the prominent voices of the civil rights movement, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, we will no doubt be inundated with celebrations and commentary speaking to what his life meant to this nation. However, rarely do these reflections explore the full scope of Dr. Kings beliefs, work, and activism. Over the past 30 plus years, there has been a co-option of his by right wing forces who seek to rewrite his legacy or moderates who desire to water it down. As a result, the true impact and nature of Dr. King is obscured, and the impact of his work is diminished to an almost caricature like status. As we begin to engage in these dialogs around the King legacy and thereafter immediately move into Black History Month, I believe it is of the utmost urgency to reclaim what Dr. Cornell West has termed “The Radical King.” Perhaps, if we finally embrace the radical voice of one our most esteemed ancestors, then we, especially Black clergy, will openly embrace our radical voice or at the very least stop running from it. But to reclaim the Radical King, we must begin to dispel the ugly myths that will rear its ugly head during this holiday.
Myth #1: We must dispel the framing of Dr. King as some Black conservative or timid moderate. The truth is Dr. King was neither of these things. Dr. King was not a Black conservative who sought to uphold systems of oppression nor was he some moderate more concerned with making whites comfortable. To be concise, in his now famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”, King was highly critical of moderates, in particular white moderates, who critiqued those doing the justice work but never engaged in the struggle. During his life, Dr. King was an outspoken critic of the American social order and dedicated his life to forcing it to live out the lofty creeds it set for white Americans. Dr. King sought to transform the soul of the nation by forcing it to confront the contradictions it held regarding Black people, but he also wanted to make sure that war and poverty, two of the bedrocks of American capitalism, were eradicated.
Myth #2: We need to dispel this myth that King was anti Black Power and radical politics. Neither is true. Contrary to what is often presented by ring wing conservatives of all shades and hues, Dr. King was also not against Radical Black movements nor Black Power, even if he did not always fully agree with the tenants and programs associated within the movement. If anything, he was more critical of the oppressive systems that made Black radicalism a necessity, which is why he often spoke of riots as the language of the unheard and the equitable distribution of resources. Dr. King very much resonated with a radical view of God, Jesus and the oppressed as evident by his proclamation about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice. Dr. King understood that in the context of social systems, love without power was foolhardy and dangerous. Despite what many of the more extreme evangelical Christians will tell you, Dr. King was very much a believer and follower of the radical Jesus, as much as he was a student of scripture. The entire foundation for the concept of the beloved community is found in the framework of Jesus’ ministry and Dr. King did his best to exemplify this. As an aside, I often wonder how Dr. King would feel about today’s Black clergy, many of which are more concerned with drying white tears and maintaining the status quo than liberation people from oppressive systems.
Myth #3: We must stop the myths about Kings work. This is often done by reducing Dr. King’s activism to a 10-year period. Dr. King’s work did not stop after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dr. King continued to do so much more on issues of justice, and we do him a disservice when we reduce his legacy to the “I Have a Dream Speech.” After 1965, Dr. King expanded his politics and ideologies to tackle the arguably more complicated, (and by his own account) but no less brutal northern segregation. Dr. King led movements in Chicago, Watts, LA, and many other northern cities in attempt to dismantle northern Jim Crow. During these movements, he was often betrayed by the very forces he struggled with in his life, white and Black moderates, and dealing with empty promises from slick talking politicians. Dr. King’s shift from civil rights to human rights, economic justice, and anti-war issues, earned him no friends, alienated his most powerful allies, and put him under more intense scrutiny from COINTELPRO, the FBI program designed to disrupt Black liberation movements from the 1920s-1970s (many argue it continues to this day). At the time of his death in 1968, Dr. King was not “beloved”; 68% of whites and 54% disapproved of his shift from basic civil rights to the more complex issues of poverty and anti-war activism.
Myth #4: Perhaps the greatest myth we must shed is falsehood that Dr. King died for any reason other than what he gave his life for. Dr. King was not murdered over the issue of voting rights, nor was it so all men could live together in harmony (even Jesus didn’t do that), but rather Dr. King was assassinated while engaging in an economic protest. Dr. King was in Memphis to help the Black sanitation workers earn what can be termed a living wage while simultaneously organizing SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign, an event that was intended to be a mass protest of American’s poor and working poor in Washington D.C. While Dr. King was always seen as threat on some level, his open shift to embrace radical racial, political and economics politics was too much for the system to bear. We need this point out because to consistently downplay what got Dr. King killed is a disservice to his legacy and does not set the proper example for those who seek to model his work.
As we celebrate this year, it is important that we highlight the man who truly attempted to force this nation to deal with its contradictions and injustice. While his methods and strategies may not resonate with many today, the work he attempted to do and, in many cases, what was achieved cannot be questioned. Let us stop with the caricature of King we have been presented and let up boldly embrace the radical voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One final note: Can we please stop with the exploitation of this holiday with the “day of service” rhetoric. Reducing this holiday to a day of service is a form of cheap labor, cheap grace, and symbolism. Perhaps instead of operating in the perception of service, we should sit in mediation on Dr. Kings life and how we can truly emulate his work in today’s context.