The Truth About Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Jan 16th, 2023
Today as we pay homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we must acknowledge him as a true anti-establishment radical and reject the whitewashing of his legacy. Dr. King’s words are often misconstrued and sanitized, which undermine liberation movements—"the Santa-Clausification" of Dr. King, as Dr. Cornel West aptly described in his book The Radical King. Dr. King was a Black man who did not get to grow old; that is a tragedy we are all too familiar with. His life was stolen by white supremacy, and now his words are diluted in service of a white supremacist and capitalist agenda. Today, we are reclaiming his true legacy.
On protests and police brutality:
Dr. King was not simply a pacifist; he had a militant, disciplined commitment to active nonviolent direct action. He called for mass civil disobedience to “dislocate the functioning” of cities. And though Dr. King was a proponent of active nonviolent resistance against evil, he was nuanced in his critiques of other forms of resistance. He understood that a “riot is the language of the unheard” and that to avert riots, America needed to address the plight of poor, Black Americans forced to live in “intolerable conditions.” He also challenged white society to focus their “concerns on justice and humanity" rather than "tranquility and maintaining the status quo.” In a speech at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, Dr. King said, “Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections.”
In his speech, "Nonviolence and Social Change," Dr. King explained that the urban riots of 1967 primarily targeted property, not people, “because property represents the white power structure” and some Black rioters “looted” in an effort to “redress the power imbalance that property represents.” He noted that the destruction was directed at “symbols of exploitation.”
He also observed the true aggressors exacerbating violence against people were military and police action. He once declared, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
On economic injustice and capitalism:
Despite how many characterize him, Dr. King was a democratic socialist who frequently criticized capitalism. He once said, “[…]call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
In a speech supporting the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike, Dr. King said “ […]it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. […] Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.”
Half a century later, with inflation on the rise as 64 percent of the U.S. population is living paycheck-to-paycheck, Dr. King’s words still ring true. Despite the recent revival of the pro-labor movement, union booms, and strikes, we still face aggressive opposition from corporations and the government as we fight for livable wages and proper working conditions. Just recently, the Biden Administration blocked, through legislation, a railroad worker' strike action demanding paid sick leave.
On militarism and colonization:
Exactly one year before he was assassinated, Dr. King delivered a compelling speech entitled "Beyond Vietnam, in which he declared his anti-war stance and vehemently denounced America’s involvement in the war. He warned, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He went on to say, “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos, without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world: my own government.” Dr. King’s profound and cutting words are timely as the Biden Administration seeks to increase the Department of Defense already-bloated budget to $770 billion, $30.7 billion more than last year.
Dr. King was also anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist. He spoke about how colonialism and imperialism have given way to domination and exploitation, and he drew parallels between colonialism and segregation, calling them “nearly synonymous.”
This is the true legacy of Dr. King, not the sanitized narrative that buttresses respectability politics and condemns Black-led, working-class-led movements. Dr. King dedicated his short life to fighting against the three evils of society— “racism, excessive materialism (capitalism), and militarism,” and if we want to truly celebrate him, we must honor and uplift his distorted legacy. As Dr. Cornel West once said, “Like King, we need to put on our cemetery clothes and be coffin-ready for the next great democratic battle.”
The CJI Family