The Whitewashed Radicalism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Graceful. Humble. Steadfast. Intelligent. Compassionate. These are all terms used to describe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even today, nearly 50 years after his assassination, most Americans are hard pressed to find another champion of civil rights that is more universally revered than Dr. King. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech is still used to promote peace, tolerance, and acceptance. He is the first and only Black American to have a national holiday in his honor and most modern displays of appreciation of black history and culture are anchored by him. Yet, since his death in 1968, so much has been lost about what Dr. King stood for and how he was received by his peers and by his country. The Martin Luther King Jr. persona that’s prevalent today doesn’t tell the whole story about the man who was considered “radical” by the United States government and thrown in jail more than 30 times.
From his humble beginnings in the church to a career in advocacy, Dr. King devoted his life to leveling the playing field for all people. King’s earliest moral influences came from the church. As the son of a minister, he was entrenched in the teachings of the bible and went on to study theology in college. He had his first major shift in ideology during his freshman year at Morehouse College. A. Philip Randolph, an African American civil rights activist, spoke about the tenets of socialism and how systems like capitalism and white supremacy were destined to fail once economic equality was achieved. These ideas left a strong impression on King. As a religious man, King valued the idea of communities that cared for the wellbeing of others. For him, socialism became the answer to the problems of wealth inequality he saw in the aftermath of the Great Depression. However, for King to entertain ideas of socialism in the 1940’s made him a threat to white America’s capitalistic dream.
Besides his political and economic leanings, Dr. King also spoke out against the war in Vietnam. As a lifelong advocate of civil rights in America, he made it clear that his ideology was relevant on the global stage. In his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, he implored the American people and government to reconsider the country’s role in the war. He was highly criticized in the media for his anti-war sentiments, and even deemed unpatriotic, which draws similarities to the current treatment of Colin Kaepernick. It’s common for historical facts to be lost or altered at the hands of time or those in power, but regarding social justice, society simply can’t afford to forget that large scale social change is messy and, at times, unpopular. Dr. King recognized that a true revolutionary must boldly challenge the status quo if they have any hope of changing it, despite inevitable backlash. He stresses this point in “Beyond Vietnam”, saying “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” It was Dr. King’s “radical” opinions on economics and politics and uncompromising moral conviction that made him a force to be reckoned with.
Nowadays, however, learning about his work often means to ingest a sterilized, easy-to-swallow version of Dr. King that waters down his fierce revolutionary spirit by branding his methods of nonviolent protest as essentially passive and nonthreatening. This removes any semblance of what it means to be a true warrior for justice, for revolution is only possible by directing our speech and our actions towards the ideological destruction of the status quo, even when it hurts: “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. ...for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us” (Beyond Vietnam).
The intentional sterilization of Dr. King’s legacy is a gross misuse of history. To expunge his story of controversy only serves to distance the public’s understanding of how social change is created. Given our country’s long-standing struggles with racial and gender equality, we cannot afford to forget our history. Dr. King promoted peace and nonviolence, but more importantly, he valued his truth and his beliefs above being palatable to the tastes of his oppressors. In his own words, he describes the plight of changemakers, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent”. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, we must encourage ourselves and our allies to go beyond the whitewashed propaganda of our oppressors and channel the true spirit of Dr. King. Our movements and causes deserve to have unrelenting leaders that will “straighten their backs” to stand up against injustice, no matter the consequences.