It's Time to Remember Martin Luther King, The Radical
When Nelson Mandela died last month, I envied South Africans who had worked alongside him for freedom: Americans haven’t gotten to see many of our icons of justice get that old. My immediate thought was of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated at 39, though Bobby and John Kennedy, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, quickly followed.
But the inescapable image was King. Even if the freedom struggle of the 1960s didn’t end up letting King grow old like Mandela, let alone lead his country as president, it was hard not to compare the two, especially since Mandela so often declared his debt to his younger American ally.
King and Mandela had much in common, but one thing stands out this week: As they were lionized globally, both were deradicalized, pasteurized and homogenized, made safe for mass consumption. Each was in favor of a radical redistribution of global wealth. Each crusaded against poverty and inequality and war. Both did it with an equanimity and ebullience and capacity to forgive and love their enemies that made it easy to canonize them in a secular way. White people love being given the benefit of the doubt and/or being forgiven. I speak from experience.
But now, as the country turns again to issues of income inequality and poverty, and economic populism is said to be having a “moment,” maybe it’s time to remember Dr. King, the radical. The one who died trying to ignite a Poor People’s Movement that he saw as the natural outcome of the civil rights movement. The one who tried to branch out to fight poverty and war, but at least in his lifetime – and so far in ours – didn’t succeed.
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I loved pretty much everything about the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last year, except how the right got it so wrong. It seemed to be the beginning of a movement to reclaim the real MLK, especially among liberals. King was of course celebrated hugely, but so were lefty heroes who never get enough credit, like Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. There were stories about “The Socialists Behind the March on Washington,” as well as about the media’s and the Kennedy administration’s wrongheaded fears of violence.
Coming off of that gorgeous 50th anniversary celebration, though, where we remembered the triumph of King the strategist and organizer, let’s remember the King who tried and, by common measures, failed. Wasn’t feted, wasn’t lionized. King was always a radical, but at the end of his life, he was something of an outcast, criticized by liberals, the left and the right.
Forget about the right, for now: King crossed some Democrats and labor leaders when he turned against the Vietnam War in 1967, after his unparalleled Riverside Church speech. He knew the war was not only wrong, but was making Johnson’s alleged “War on Poverty” fiscally impossible. Meanwhile a growing black power movement mocked King’s commitment to nonviolence and integration. Even some close allies in the civil rights movement blanched when he joined Marion Wright Edelman and other organizers to start a Poor People’s Campaign later that year – a movement of black, white, Latino, American Indian and Asian people mired in poverty, to fight the war and get the help they deserved. They were to march on Washington and set up a camp there in April 1968, the month King was assassinated.
Harry Belafonte tells a story in his amazing memoir, “My Song,” about King being challenged by his SCLC deputies on his accelerating radicalism generally, and the Poor People’s Campaign specifically, just a week before he died. Describing King as a “socialist and revolutionary thinker,” Belafonte says he clashed with close ally and future Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, over not only the Poor People’s Campaign, but King’s thoroughgoing critique of capitalism. Belafonte quotes King telling the group, gathered at the singer/actor/activist’s New York apartment: “What deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.”