To properly honor King, we must recall his radical views
In the decades following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, great pains have been taken to adapt his message to that of all sorts of groups, some of which opposed him in his time and many of which he would oppose today.
This has been done by cherry-picking the activist’s words to pigeonhole his vision as one of simple tolerance and cooperation, one that desired only for people of all races to receive the same treatment and work together in harmony.
While that is certainly a piece of King’s legacy, what is often left out is the methods by which the civil rights icon thought these goals could be achieved and humanity’s gravest problems resolved.
On one hand, King saw militarism, materialism and capitalism, three of the key bedrocks upon which American civilization rests, as some of the main culprits responsible for the twin scourges of racism and poverty that continue to grip this nation.
“Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources,” King once said. “With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society,” King said another time. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
“Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice,” King also stated. “The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both black and white, both here and abroad.”
Such comments are rarely discussed when we celebrate King’s legacy, but it is in these comments that one gets a truer perspective of his theories related to society and civilization and, just as much, the reason that he faced such stiff opposition from parties beyond hate-filled racists.
In what is akin to the “lukewarm” proverb from the Bible, King also expressed a healthy disdain for the “white moderate,” a person of a political slant that allows them to express support for a progressive movement but act in a manner wholly antithetical to its aims.
“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”
One could go on sharing comments from King that never made it into history books or the commonly-accepted narrative of the day, which paints him as a docile, Gandhi-like figure incapable of rage and infected with blind optimism – such an image is a disservice to a man whose thoughts on society some 50 years ago are still so strikingly poignant and sadly accurate.
While we absolutely celebrate King for his espousal of love as a weapon against hate and his tireless pursuit of equality and justice in the name of racial harmony, we must also celebrate King for his in-depth analysis of American society and the conclusions at which he arrived as result of them.
To honor only some of King’s words –those that paint a portrait which won’t test the delicate sensibilities of those who have or would oppose his work; those that shed light on only a portion of his life’s work and, therefore, only a portion of the man – is to fail in holding onto and learning from his life, his work, his brilliance, his vision and his sacrifice.
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