Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a radical

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a radical

Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird February 2024)

Editor’s note: The FBI quote in this essay includes an outdated term that was left unaltered to reflect the tone of the original statement.

I’ve often quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in my essays, usually something he said about love or the importance of nonviolence. 

I don’t remember which specific essay or quote prompted a comment from a reader, but I remember them saying to be careful quoting MLK. Dr. King, they said, was a man of more complexity and nuance than his most popular quotes celebrated him to be. King had pretty radical ideas, they claimed. He was a socialist and endorsed communism. He was against capitalism and was anti-military. The reader called him anti-American. I was told that I should read some of MLK’s later material and perhaps I wouldn’t be so quick to quote him in the future.

I am certainly not an authority on the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, but I have followed up on my friend’s suggestion and continue to do so. The more I read, the more I realize that Dr. King understood the evils of the world and what needed to be done to overcome them. And I see how his ideas were (and are) considered truly radical.

Probably the most often-used quote of Dr. King is from his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963: 

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

This quote, taken out of context, is used to argue that we are a post-racial society. That we should all be colorblind. That race doesn’t matter. That to consider race is itself racist.

But this insidious view undermines everything Dr. King stood for. If racism had truly been vanquished, then why, after half a century, do we still have such a disparity among racial groups? How do we explain that poverty among Black people is twice that of white people; that the wealth of white families is nearly ten times that of Black families; that Black men are two and half times more likely to be killed by police than white men; that Black men are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white men; that health outcomes are worse for Black people (especially Black women)? Indeed, by almost every measure, racial inequality persists in America despite laws that were supposed to eliminate racism. 

How else do you explain these disparities if systemic racism isn’t real?

Martin Luther King’s ideas on how to transform the world were radical. More than what we read in his most popular quotes — that love is stronger than hate, and that we should have an unshakeable commitment to nonviolence — he believed that structural change was essential to overcome poverty and racism. On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was killed, Dr. King gave a speech strongly denouncing the Vietnam War. As I read through “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” in my research for this essay, I could easily replace Vietnam with any of the wars since. What was true in 1967 remains true today. The entire speech is worth reading, but this paragraph seems to capture the essence of King’s point:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. …We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Although today we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy with a federal holiday and cherry-picked quotes, his ideas when he was alive were not popular. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI illegally monitored his activities and those of other Black activists. In response to his “I Have a Dream” speech, The head of the FBI’s COINTELPRO wrote: 

“In the light of King's powerful demagogic speech ... we must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

The United States Government considered Martin Luther King, Jr. a threat to the status quo and targeted him specifically for his beliefs and activism.

But in spite of the constant threats against him and disagreements on how to bring about change among other civil rights leaders, Dr. King would not be deterred. Speaking to the Southern Christian Leadership Conferencein Atlanta on August 16, 1967, he was even more radical. He spoke in favor of a guaranteed basic income, he continued to call for an end to the Vietnam War, and he gave a scathing indictment of the country’s policies and priorities. 

“And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.”

And in that same speech, he called out the source of injustice.

“What I’m saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now when I say questioning the whole of society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are all interrelated.”

That triplet of evils continues to hold us back from a world of justice and peace today.

When we remember Dr. King, we should remember all he stood for. We should work to achieve his REALdream. Not only that his children wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin, but that the divisiveness, the human suffering, the poverty, the militarism, and the injustice in the United States and around the world would be abolished. 

Dr. King had seen the power of the nonviolent demand for civil rights. In his speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he gave several examples of how corporations and government had changed policy in response to the power of the boycott, the power of nonviolent protest, and the power of the message. But he cautioned that power must come from a place of love:

“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best… is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.”

As we call for radical change, let us remain as hopeful and committed to change as Dr. King. 

Preaching in Memphis the night before he died, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the hopeful future he saw in the words of his final sermon:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”



To read Dr. King’s words for yourself, I recommend The Radical King, by Martin Luther King, Jr, edited by Cornel West.