This week, as we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I would like to suggest that we try to expand our commemorative efforts beyond celebrations of nonviolence, “brotherhood,” and the “beloved community,” and towards a more complete and accurate depiction of King—one that understands him as much more radical and revolutionary than tends to be historically acknowledged.
Partly, this is because I worry that, the more we repeat this familiar storyline, the more it becomes routine and the less we appreciate the profound and expansive nature of King’s struggles. Our traditional memorials situate King too comfortably within a faulty, triumphant narrative of American history, and elide some of his most powerful activism that took place beyond the realm of civil rights and placed him in direct opposition to majority American opinion.
Such treatments of Dr. King fail to do justice to the revolutionary nature of his character and life’s work, and do too much justice to the history of much of American society and government. Often times, these narratives treat the immorality of white supremacy as self-evident to the national majority, the struggle for racial equality as inevitable and less contested than it in fact was, and the work of civil rights activists, especially King, as complete. King that is omitted in these tellings—the lesser-known of what scholar Nikhil Pal Singh has called “the two Martin Luther Kings”—was intensely critical of American society, and carried aspirations and visions that were sprawling, nuanced, and often exceedingly unpopular, reaching well beyond the project of racial integration and toward a genuine reformation of American society.
Though his struggles for black equality were always important in his work, they were not always its defining feature, especially later in his life. In order to draw a better and more meaningful memorial for King, then, we need to reckon with his controversial activism and radical nature alongside the idyllic visions of him that are usually conjured.
As with most celebrations of his life, the central feature of many King Day commemorations is sure to be the Reverend’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered at the 1963 March on Washington. Though we honor the importance of that moment, the urgency and meaning of the speech itself are dulled and transformed in our modern recollections of it. In many respects, King’s integrationist vision of “sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners” coming together at “the table of brotherhood,” or his dream of “little black boys and black girls” joining hands with their white counterparts, have become stand-ins for both King’s personal ethos and for the ambitions of the entire black freedom struggle.
But there at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, King’s “dream” was as feverish as it was hopeful, and it took a backseat to his condemnations of America’s failure to live up to its professed ideals. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” King thundered, “they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It was painfully obvious to King that America had violated its “sacred obligation” and “defaulted on this promissory note;” thus, the aim of the March on Washington was to cash the check that the founding fathers had written.
Later, he warned that the nation “will have a rude awakening if [it] returns to business as usual,” and foresaw “the whirlwinds of revolt” that would sweep the nation in the coming years. And, lest we forget the economic imperative already being injected into the struggle for black equality by this point, the banner heading of the march was, in fact, “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
In the following years and until his assassination, King’s critiques of the United States became more urgent and harsh, as he attacked the stubborn persistence of “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism,” and for those attacks he became increasingly vilified. His efforts to dismantle America’s “interrelated flaws,” as he called them, which he articulated as “systemic rather than superficial,” did not enjoy much praise from the bulk of Americans, and were met with resistance at virtually every turn.
For many in the American mainstream, and even among many of his contemporaries within the civil rights movement, King’s increasingly strident commentaries on American traditions and governance represented nothing short of an abject betrayal. His criticism of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy generated such controversy that it led LBJ to launch a brutal and invective tirade: “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 was lambasted as unpatriotic and accused of practicing demagoguery; he was criticized as ungrateful to his supposed allies, and labeled a Communist for his condemnations of the Vietnam War, as well as his assertions of American capitalism’s moral failures.
King understood that the problems of America involved much more than racial inequality, and—in answer to LBJ’s question—what he in fact wanted was “a radical redistribution of power,” as he told a New York ministerial advisory committee. “We are not interested in being integrated into this [current, capitalist] value structure.” His work as a labor activist and as an advocate for the poor, evidenced most famously in his collaborations with Memphis sanitation workers and in his efforts to launch a nationwide Poor People’s Campaign, questioned the efficacy and morality of the American capitalist system. He sought not only to change the beliefs and practices of the nation in regard to racial prejudice, but pursued a massive overhaul of a system that exacted injustice on multiple fronts. As scholars from Singh to Michael Honey to Thomas Jackson remind us, in so many words, King’s goals were to fundamentally change the foundations of American society.
King’s willingness to embrace changes and evolutions in his political and moral thought, the global lens through which he viewed the problems of the poor and oppressed, and the tenacity with which he inserted justice and morality into American political and social discourses serve as powerful, yet often overlooked, components of his legacy. Without question, the traditional rendering of King—the one that will be recalled this MLK Day in schools, churches, community forums and political rallies across the country—is important, poignant, and powerful.
Yet, at best, it’s only half the story, and it disingenuously smoothes the rough edges of both King’s politics and American social, political, and racial history. Today, when we commemorate King solely through lenses of national triumph and racial conciliation, and portray, for example, Barack Obama’s electoral success as the ultimate realization of the Reverend’s dream, we do so only by carefully selecting from both King’s personal and American national history.
In a modern context that devalues dissent and rubber-stamps it as unpatriotic and irrational, it’s important to remember that King wasn’t always considered the hero that we now commemorate, and much of that had to do with his contemporaries’ discomfort with his jarring criticisms of American society. In our reimaginings of 1960s America today, the collective forgetting of both the radical elements of King’s politics and society’s general animosity toward them is perhaps explained by the fact that many of those problems that he critiqued have only worsened since his murder; and if there’s one thing that most American political and social discourses don’t make much room for, it’s our national mistakes and flaws.
Though it’s easy to celebrate the accomplishments that King saw through to some sort of tangible completion, it is less comfortable to reckon with those that he couldn’t fix and that remain unrepaired. The wealth gap in the United States is more staggering than ever. The commitment of budgetary resources to military and defense spending dwarfs—and worse, robs from—spending on human welfare and social justice. The reactionary invasions leading to the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Iran? Pakistan? Yemen?) are proof of the persistence of militarist and imperialist American impulses. And despite claims of postracialism, we have plenty of daily reminders that racism still exists, even if, scientifically speaking, race does not.
Were he alive today, I doubt that King would have been silent on any of these issues; indeed, I suspect that he would have as much to say about our present as he did about our past. By the end of his life, King seemed to understand American morality and justice as more aspiration than historical practice, and he continued to wonder when the American government would finally make good on the check it had written to its citizens almost two centuries prior, asking questions that we might still consider in our own time.
Perhaps the best way to honor him, then, is by remembering his voice as one of powerful and strident dissent, and commemorating him as a radical opponent to the conventional machinations of American government and society, rather than as another of our nation’s heroes whose life and work were devoutly rooted in its ethics and traditions. His memory deserves and demands that we reckon with the problems that persist in American society, both including and beyond those involving racist sentiments, politics, and actions.
If we don’t—and if we accept the image of him that encompasses only his nonviolence and his political savvy, and continue to try simply to understand him within the confines of our traditional national historical narrative—we ultimately risk not understanding him at all. As King said of those who asked why he joined the voices of dissent denouncing the war in Vietnam: “When I hear them, [I am] greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”
By Simon Balto
Mr. Balto is a graduate student in History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He may be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Reprinted with permission from the History News Network.
- Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 21. See especially Singh’s brilliant introduction, which discusses “the disjuncture between King as a redemptive national icon and King as an unsettling figure in opposition to the nation-state”.
- JHarvard Sitkoff, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop (New York: Hill & Wang, 2008), 217.
- Michael Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (W.W. Norton & Co., 2007), 76.