The radical Martin Luther King Jr. we do not know
By Dr. Joseph Chuman
Martin Luther King Day is almost upon us and its advent comes for me with a sense of ambivalence. That King is worthy of a national holiday, I hold without doubt. He was certainly one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, if not all of American history.
His non-violent movement to end de jure segregation was truly transformational. He was a phenomenally powerful, brilliant and inspirational orator whose use of language was almost without equal. He was a man of great courage, vaunting dignity and a steadfast sense of purpose. He was also a masterful tactician of social change and organization of the movement he led. Martin Luther King Jr. was a towering figure who had few equals.
Worthy of a national holiday – sure. But my ambivalence emerges from the realization that one of the most effective ways to neutralize or sanitize a great figure is to turn him or her into a national holiday. To be accolated as such, the person must be transformed into an icon and acceptable to the largest cross-section of Americans. This requires reaching for the lowest and least offensive common denominator.
So, we will hear a lot about King as a “dreamer,” or is it dreamy? That King had a vision of what America needed to be and could be was certain. But what is often missing is the analysis of American injustice that he militantly believed was necessary to move American society to where it needed to be in fulfillment of the promise laid down in the Declaration of Independence.
Everyone knows that King was a severe critic of racial injustice. But few know (or care to know) that King linked racism inextricably to an analysis of the evils of capitalism, colonialism, militarism, rampant individualism, poverty and materialism. He saw himself as one with the revolutionaries who were struggling to free the nations of Africa and Asia from the yoke of European imperialism. He lauded the great African-American intellectual, W.E. B. DuBois, including DuBois in later life when he became an avowed communist. And while he strategically did not often publicly proclaim it, Martin Luther King Jr. identi-fied himself as a democratic socialist.
Silence about evil was unacceptable
I remember well the speech he gave to about 3,000 people who convened at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated in Memphis. In that speech, he spoke out militantly against the evils of the war in Vietnam. In giving that speech, King evinced his intellectual integrity and his tremendous courage. Opposition to the speech by those who supported King in his civil rights work was furious. He had been advised by his own lieutenants not to do it. And the New York Times, in an editorial, criticized him for diverting from his primary mission as a civil rights leader. But King spoke out against the war anyway. It is my view that he did so simply because he believed that it was the right thing to do, and that to remain silent in the face of evil was unacceptable
In the opening sentence of that speech, he said, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” To those who asserted that the causes of civil rights and peace don’t mix, and that he was diverting the movement away from its mission, King responded with sadness, stating that his “inquirers have really not known me.” And therein is implied the deeper analysis that joins racism with poverty and militarism.
“A radical revolution of values”
In that speech, he makes the analysis explicit:
“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 shift from being 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, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
When I contemplate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and his achievements, I always return with amazement to the reality that when he was gunned down in April 1968, and his mission thereby ended, he was only 39 years old. Indeed, King could still readily be alive and with us today.
Often one hears the question invoked as to whether, if he were to return, would he conclude that his vision was realized and his mission fulfilled. I believe that it is impossible to believe that he would.
King would be a lonely moral today
Given his baseline commitments and ideals, which were rooted in his religious faith, I see him denouncing with a sense of militancy the enduring reality of racism, the obscenity of the massive and disproportionate incarceration of black men, the immoral gap in wealth between the super-wealthy and the poor, as well as the abandonment of poverty as a matter of social concern, the hegemonic power of corporations, the scapegoating and deportation of immigrants, the dropping of bombs by drones and endless war. And King would be speaking out as moral voice – no doubt a lonely moral voice – against the absence of redemptive values in American society.
In our times, we need to re-invoke the message of Martin Luther King Jr.—not the sanitized King—who can paradoxically be feted as a national hero, yet whose deeper commitments are readily marginalized. We need more than ever to know the thoughts and values of the radical King and permit ourselves to be inspired. I will take a step along the way in my platform address on Jan. 7: “The Radical Martin Luther King Jr. We Do Not Know.” I much look forward to being with you then.
Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.