MLK Day of Service: Taming a Radical

Last week marked another celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And so continued a fundamental misunderstanding of King’s message, at least at a national level.

Last Monday, activist Maya Wiley—not a part of that above-mentioned misunderstanding, I might add—delivered a compelling, thought-provoking talk on King and his legacy.

As a part of her central message on systemic inequality, Wiley touched on present-day circumstances and how they measure up to the “beloved community” King sought to create.

In doing so, Wiley skimmed the surface of an important topic in regards to King, a topic that is rarely addressed in the national conversation: King as a political figure.

The mainstream image painted of King is a collage of happy-go-lucky marches, community service projects, and piecemeal forms of charity.

King is portrayed as a non-controversial figure that everyone can celebrate, a sort of Santa Claus who brought racial equality to all Americans as a present for their outstanding citizenship.

Politicians of all stripes endorse his message; mass media relentlessly idolize him.

Lost in all this sanitized celebration, however, is the radical substance of King’s message—a message that forcefully challenged America.

We tend to forget that King was a political figure, that King sought to change his community, not necessarily serve it. And while King did not affiliate with or endorse a political party, he certainly had an ideology; it was quite progressive.

In coordination with his well-known fight against racism, King sought to reduce systemic wealth inequality, an issue that, in fact, cannot be separated from his message on racism (as Wiley pointed out). For King, “this more fair distribution of resources,” as Wiley described it, was not to come through private charity—or even free market capitalism.

Rather, King fought for major economic reforms, evident by his activity with labor unions, presence with the “Poor People’s Campaign,” and push for Congress to pass an economic bill of rights.

King called for a guaranteed annual income from the federal government, a large-scale public housing project, and shift in military spending towards alleviating poverty.

He pressed for what he called the “shift from a ‘thing’-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”

Ultimately, this fight for “economic justice” was underpinned by the notion, to quote King, that “there is something wrong with capitalism.”

As a side note—this portion of King’s message makes it inconsistent for conservative politicians to champion his message. Unless conservatives wish to change their minds on the importance of welfare programs, reducing wealth inequality, and, ultimately, the way they think about people who are poor.

It would be more effective, however, to remember that former president and conservative hero Ronald Reagan nearly vetoed the bill that established last week’s King holiday.

I digress—this is less of a matter of claiming King for political gain and more of an issue of accurately remembering him.

Tied into his message on inequality, King was also quite critical of what he termed the government’s “military industrial complex.” Amidst the Vietnam War, for example, King referred to the United States as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

We also forget how much resistance King’s message met.

King’s march through Birmingham for desegregation was met with police officers and dogs, fire hoses and clubs.

King was arrested and jailed.

He was placed under heavy FBI surveillance, which included wire-tapping and an FBI file that consists of tens of thousands of transcripts and memos.

One memo labeled him “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”

But rather than a person who challenged the status quo, rather than a figure that was met with government-sponsored hostility, rather than a thinker who articulated a profound, thorough type of justice—King’s radical critiques go unexplored in our national discussion and he is tucked away tightly in our history book as an American hero, part of what we imagine as our inevitably peaceful, flawless, and exceptional history as a nation.

In doing this, we miss how complex and challenging King’s message was, a message that is still—when contrasted with today’s reality—radical.

Amidst our country’s greatest level of wealth inequality, largest prison population (driven by a legal system which disproportionately incarcerates the poor and non-white), and continued perpetuation of war—King’s call for justice, compassion, and peace would still be one to shake our foundation as a country.

King’s message had radical, leftist political implications. Let’s not tame him to make our history—or current conditions—more acceptable.

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