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Reclaiming the Radical MLK!

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 o