This Martin Luther King Jr. Day on 18 January, it’s important to challenge the dominant narratives that surround him. His history as a radical, anti-racist, anti-war, anti-capitalist leftist has been whitewashed to produce something more palatable for the mainstream.
However, the iconic civil rights leader posed a legitimate threat to America’s white supremacist, militaristic, imperialist, materialistic status quo.
King stood firm against the “Three Evils of Society”: Militarism, Materialism, and Racism. His non-violent resistance has been misrepresented as colour-blind passivity. But he was committed to fundamental revolutionary change.
Liberal and conservative commentators alike have co-opted King’s memory to discredit the aims and actions of today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Others have used his words to support harmful ideologies of colour-blindness and false unity. These are total misrepresentations of the man who sought to disrupt and dismantle systems of racial, economic, and militaristic oppression.
King’s famous “I have a dream” speech has been watered down beyond recognition. In the speech, he praised the “marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community”. Regarding events in 1963, when members of Birmingham, Alabama’s Black community rose up against white supremacist attacks, King warned the establishment:
This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. …
The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
Recognising that the establishment didn’t intend to relinquish power, King posited that Black people must seize it. And King’s confrontational politics led the FBI to label him the “most dangerous… Negro leader in the country”.
In the face of increasingly militarised law enforcement agencies and expansive military campaigns, King’s prophetic words that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” still ring true. In 2018, academic Cornel West highlighted the hypocrisy of warmongering imperialist powers summoning King’s memory.
The history books tend to overlook King’s strong anti-capitalist stance. The minister saw capitalism for what it is – a system that produces a “gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty”. His Poor People’s Campaign called for the “total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty”.
Moreover, his goal was to create a multiracial working-class movement that would pose a serious threat to the establishment. King saw America for what it was, and still is. As Cornel West stated:
The radical King was a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies. . . The response of the radical King to our catastrophic moment can be put in one word: revolution – a revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life, and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens… Could it be that we know so little of the radical King because such courage defies our market-driven world?
As the fight against white supremacy, militarism, and economic inequality continues, it’s important to remember that while King stood for hope, he also stood for action.
Today’s Black freedom movement stands firmly in King’s legacy, and should be recognised as such. This year, we must challenge the selective amnesia that renders King a passive leader. And we must incorporate his holistic, revolutionary approach to change-making in today’s fight against society’s ills.