Recognizing a Radical: MLK
Conor Kelly (TheLorian)
Last week, Americans celebrated Martin Luther King Day, something that has created a sense of great admiration for the civil rights activist. And rightly so, Dr. King’s legacy is one worthy of remembering and respecting, even if one does not hold to his view of nonviolence. But with all this admiration and respect, it is worth noting how whitewashed King’s legacy has become, perhaps intentionally. Much of King’s radical views, criticism of political parties, and his overall rejection of many capitalist elements have been removed from the narrative. In a way, many Americans celebrate a fictitious view of who King was. It is high-time that changed.
When many Americans talk about Dr. King, they are usually inclined to bring up his famous I Have a Dream speech. Indeed, it is one of his most famous speeches. But more than a speech of optimistic defiance, King’s speech has been bastardized and removed from its context. This is particularly true when issues of racial justice are discussed. Many conservatives had used King’s speech to oppose affirmative action or any similar policies, quoting King when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This quote, used as the sole representation of King’s beliefs, has been one of the most noxious quotes in modern political commentary. For one, it’s common usage has been used to suggest that the mere mention of race is itself an act of prejudice. If accepted, this position would indict King himself, as he specifically criticized white moderates in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, stating, “I must confess that over the past few years, I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice…”
Is King a racist for pointing out what was self-evident? Of course not. The mere mention of race is not an indictment on the personhood of the one mentioning it. It is how they chose to react to that race that determines one’s character. The white moderates of King’s day were unfazed by his pleas for justice, and they preferred to keep things lukewarm than to heat the passions of their racist counterparts if they were not racist themselves.
That leads into yet another element of the whitewashing: how Americans reacted to King. Though many Americans today would like to believe that King’s nonviolent protests changed American hearts, the reality is that most Americans detested King. In 1966, Gallup conducted a poll in which they asked everyday Americans how they felt about Dr. King. Not only did a majority say they disapproved of his work, but nearly 2/3 of respondents disapproved of him, more than two times the amount who supported him. The reality is that King was detested during his time and had to force America to hold up to its lofty goals, many times by flooding the jails of whichever community he fought to end.
It would be a grave mistake on my part if I did not mention the reason King was so hated in 1966. Quite simply, King had joined the Left. During his Chicago Freedom Movement, King took a direct shot at the redlining policies of Chicago and numerous cities throughout the country, which have not been adequately addressed since King first arrived in the Midwestern city all those years ago. It was in Chicago that King was met with violence that shocked even him. After a mob tried to attack King and his supporters, King noted, “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.” King had seen cars blown up, colleagues shot, and yet what he witnessed in Chicago shook him. If there is one thing that makes Americans forget their lofty ideals, economic convenience seems to be it.
But more than that, King was hated for his increasing radicalism near the end of his life. King was pro-distributionist in his political views. During one of his speeches, he said, “We must also realize that the problems with racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” And this was not a mere one-time thing. During his Riverside Church Speech in 1967, King explicitly warned about the excesses of materialism and the profit motive being part of racial injustice.
It is one thing to disagree with a man, but it is another thing entirely to lionize him for positions that he never took. For all of his good work, King has been subject to one of the cruelest forms of revisionism that American society could have placed upon a man of his character: the defanging of a radical. Suppose America, and the American people more generally, are serious about showing respect to Dr. King’s legacy. In that case, it is time that Americans recognize that what King was marching for did not die with him. It is a continuous struggle that has not ended and will not end soon because we as a society don’t want it to. We want to keep living in our myths.