The radical Martin Luther King we do not know
This platform address was delivered by Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, at the Society’s meetinghouse on Jan. 7, 2018.
By Dr. Joseph Chuman
In his acceptance speech of Dec. 10, 2009, upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, President Barack Obama said the following:
“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations, acting individually or in concert, will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak–nothing passive, nothing naïve–in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism; it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
This invocation of force may seem like odd acknowledgement to make when receiving the world’s foremost prize dedicated to the opposition to war. But Obama, I believe, was revealing himself above all to be a pragmatist and not an idealist. And for those keen to the history of ideas, he was a disciple of the Christian realist and author of Cold War containment policy, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued for the judicious use of force to contain Soviet expansionism. As Soviet Communism was to Niebuhr, so global terrorism was to Obama.
But in giving homage to Martin Luther King and contrasting himself to King, Obama also implied an interesting and important dynamic in the history and function of religion.
Where religion is at its best
In the history of religion, a difference is usually drawn been the “priestly” tradition, on the one hand, and the “prophetic” tradition, on the other. The priestly tradition is that which we ascribe to the institutions of religion, which can be passed down–the churches and churchmen, the teachings, the myths, the holy figures, the doctrines, dogmas, liturgies and practices of religion. These comprise the major part of religion. By contrast, there is the “prophetic tradition,” and although a minor voice in religion, in my view, it is where religion is at its best and does its most important work.
The prophetic tradition, is, of course, vested in the figure of the prophet. Who is the prophet? The prophet is the man or woman who stands outside the precincts of established authority and critiques the abuses and corruption of that authority by the light of the loftier moral ideals and truths of the tradition. The prophet has no military nor economic power, only the power of ethical ideals and ethical witness, by which he calls those in authority to a higher standard of conduct.
Because the prophet stands outside the precincts of power, as Obama implies, he has greater freedom to express his ideals and act on them than one who is constrained by the competing demands that come from holding political office.
Most would agree that Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi were the most illustrious, venerable and courageous examples of the prophetic religious tradition in the twentieth century. It was, again, because they stood outside the arenas of official authority and government that they could powerfully influence the corruption of government and the established order from the outside.
So, by contrast, we might conclude that had Martin Luther King held political office, had he been a government functionary, we might not have had a Civil Rights Movement, or a diminished one, without his exemplary and commanding leadership. To be a part of the system is to be very much constrained by different constituencies and interests pulling from many directions. Even the purest and most powerful idealist will find his or her ideals very quickly sullied once he or she holds political office. But the outsider, though devoid of the power attached to the arms of state, is able to speak freely and leverage the authority and influence that comes from morality and the appeals to righteousness and conscience.
King’s deeper dimension gets little exposure
All this is an instruction to an exploration of the worldview and the political commitments of Martin Luther King. It is my contention that there was a deeper dimension to King that animated his courageous struggle against racism that gets very little exposure, but which he held with deepest conviction and defended in uncompromising terms.
Martin Luther King was a national icon, and one of the few Americans honored with a national holiday, which as one of the greatest figures in our history, he assuredly deserved. But that fame, I contend, comes with a price. To be transformed into an icon—and “icon” is the Greek word for “image,”—is like being transformed into a marble statue, to be shorn of all imperfections and disquieting details. And so, this has been, in great measure, the fate of Martin Luther King.
To be feted with a national holiday means that one needs to be the object of a national consensus, that is, accepted by everyone or nearly everyone. To be so transformed is to have one’s persona and one’s achievements, as well as the ideas that one stood for, translated into the lowest and least offensive common denominator. And so, at official commemorations, King, invoking his March on Washington Speech, or at least refrains of it, is most often portrayed as a “dreamer,” which is only a stone’s throw away from being “dreamy,” or otherwise otherworldly and, thereby rendered perhaps, a bit harmless.
This spirit was articulated by Ronald Reagan, who, we might forget, signed the legislation officially making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. This is what Reagan said and what King meant to him:
“Traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King but rededicate ourselves to the commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
With the stroke of a pen, King got a sendoff to the next world very early. If this is all that King meant, he is reduced to a harmless cliché.
Moreover, King is often put forward as a promoter of racial harmony. In the long range, that is certainly true. His ultimate vision was that of the “beloved community,” as he called it, an integrated community of blacks and whites, living together in equality with cooperation and mutual respect. That religious vision was given a more secular treatment in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington in August 1963. But what is almost always absent in official portrayals of Martin Luther King are the underling political values, analysis and commitments that fueled his ultimate vision of a redeemed American society.
It is my contention that Martin Luther King was far more radical in his political beliefs than is officially portrayed. And it is my goal this morning to shed some light on the radical dimension of his thought in an effort to bring greater justice to what he believed in and greater honesty to a portrayal of who he was. But my interests are not merely biographical nor historical.
Where are today’s moral voices?
One the most distressing realities of our society at this time is that we can ask: Where are the moral voices? Where is the moral leadership which holds out a redemptive, inspiring vision of American society? Where are the ethical giants who can evoke from us the better angels of our nature and inspire us to more lasting things? There seem to be none; not in religion, not in politics, nor seemingly anywhere in public life. Maybe Americans have become too tribalized. Maybe whatever moral figure who would raise his voice would be drowned in a sea of cynicism. Maybe the pervasiveness of the Internet would quickly splinter and mutilate any message that would be proclaimed. Maybe Americans are too diverted to hear it, too preoccupied, or too anxious to care.
Given the political dangers of the moment and the ominous political climate we currently inhabit, perhaps can do no better to look to the past for that moral leadership. And so, I conclude that we need to make uses of the farther reaches of King’s thought. Even though he is 50 years dead, we vitally need him at this very bleak moment in American history.
So what was Martin Luther’s King message in its more radical manifestations?
Clearly, the centerpiece of Martin Luther King’s work was ending the 400-year scourge of racism in America. He was focally concerned about racism and racist attitudes, to be sure. The most salient aspect of the assault on racism was putting an end to legal segregation in America, at which he was assuredly successful. In that sense, King was a transformational leader as few have been, and his political triumph is the basis for his greatness. But it is my contention that King’s struggles against racism and white supremacy was part of, and woven into, a broader design which required in his view nothing less than the transformation of American Society. In other words, without that more revolutionary transformation racism could not be overcome. In short, it was his belief that abolishing Jim Crow laws, which the Civil Rights Movement did, was not equitable with ending racism. One needed to burrow down much deeper to transform and eradicate the underlying structures and institutions which give rise to racism.
Montgomery bus boycott to Memphis garbage workers’ strike
King’s activist career spanned the 13 years from his leadership in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 to his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Among the major events of that brief 13 years was the Montgomery bus boycott, which was a success, a campaign to end segregation in Albany, Georgia, in 1961, which was not, the Birmingham demonstrations of 1963, the Selma marches for voting rights of 1965, his encounter with racism in Chicago in 1966, his dialogue with black power advocates after marches in Mississippi in 1966, preparation for the Poor People’s March in 1966, his stand against the Vietnam War in 1967-68 and his final march in support of striking Memphis garbage workers in 1968.
As I will show, King always maintained a radical critique of American society throughout his career, but it was in the final three years of his life, from 1965 to 1968, that he became increasingly radicalized still, and his political language and the emphases of his political struggles underwent a change.
King was uncompromising in his principles, which led him to be named by J. Edgar Hoover as “the most dangerous man in America,” and then to be blackmailed by the FBI which urged him to commit suicide. But King was unfazed by being ensnared in phony anti-Communist witch hunts. Two of his top advisers, Bayard Rustin, in his earlier life, and Stanley Levison, throughout had Communist ties. And King had great praise for W.E. B. Du Bois, the great African-American intellectual, even in Du Bois’ later phase when he gave up on America, moved to Ghana and retained his membership in the Communist Party.
King also was an ally of anti-colonialist leaders who were engaged in liberation struggles against their European masters. He paid tribute to Nehru and communed with Ben Bella, premier of a newly independent Algeria. Indeed, King saw segregation in international terms as our form of colonialism and the fight against segregation as America’s anti-imperialist struggle.
I will get to it a little later on, but to illustrate further my point, King, while never a Communist, nevertheless maintained a militant critique of the evils of capitalism and, in fact, identified himself as a democratic socialist.
To start at the beginning, King’s political vision, borrowed from several sources, included the black integrationist tradition, of which Frederick Douglass and W.E. B. Du Bois were his most prominent precursors. He was also profoundly influenced by the non-violent direct action of Mohandas Gandhi, and the American Henry David Thoreau. King’s thought was also shaped, when he was studying for his doctorate at Boston University Divinity School, by Protestant liberalism, which placed him somewhere between Christian orthodoxy and humanism.
His Baptist minister’s values
But the most powerful influence on King emerged from his rootedness and attachment to his identity as a minister in the black Baptist church, with its commanding message of justice, love and hope. His primary identity, as he often said, was as a Baptist preacher, the son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist preachers, who continuously employed biblical ideas and allusions, both when speaking in the church and the public arena to leverage a transformation of American society. It was also to his religious faith that he personally turned in moments of despair, of which there were very many, from assassination attempts, to continual death threats, sometimes 40 a day, to vicious harassment by the FBI, to the failure of some of the Civil Rights campaigns that he led.
In King’s theology, he held to the faith that justice would ultimately prevail, and this belief became a source of hope with which he inspired those who would hear his message. As you recall, he often repeated the refrain, “The arc of morality is long, but it bends toward justice,” and this commitment to justice, rooted in his Christian faith, was absolute and unwavering.
Throughout his career, King was to appeal to a transcendent commitment to justice by the light of which he fervently believed society needed to be transformed. For example, he gave that unwavering commitment powerful articulation in what was his first major speech, given during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As with so many of his powerful orations, I can hear those cadences behind those words. He said:
“There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery. There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out on some distant road and lynched for not cooperating. There will be nobody among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation. We only assemble here because of our desire to see right exist. My friends, I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city.
And we are not wrong, we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
One can only interpret that proclamation not a as a series of pretty words, but as a powerful call to a righteous commitment to undo the evils of segregation and bring forth a condition of equality.
Love as understanding the oppressor
By love, King did not mean sentimental or affectionate feelings for others. For him, love was the most powerful force that fueled his commitment to non-violent resistance. What he meant by love is a creative understanding of where the oppressor is coming from and engaging one’s enemy with a sense of redemptive goodwill. For King, hate and violence are inherently destructive and it is this commitment that caused him to oppose figures such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, who derided non-violent action as an expression of weakness. For King, the love that animated non-violent resistance was not merely an ethic but a tactic to disarm the oppressor and ultimately transform him and her, by appeal to their conscience.
In the words of Cornel West, King’s “radical love was a moral and practical method, a way of life and a way of struggle in which oppressed people could fight for freedom without inflicting violence on the oppressor, humiliating the opponent, and hence, possibly transforming the moral disposition of one’s adversary.” In King’s value system, hate and vengeance would breed hate. But love is transformative. Love was a manifestation not of weakness, but of strength. And in the manifestation of that love through non-violent confrontation, King believed, lay not only the transformation of the oppressed condition of African-Americans, but the transformation of white Americans as well. In this, the black people of American had a distinctive mission and a redeeming role to play for America as a whole.
We need to remember that the Civil Rights Movement was a period of tumultuous conflict of much violence and danger, and King bore much of that on his shoulders. It was the period of the freedom rides, the shock troops of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the Mississippi summer and assassination of three civil rights workers, The Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 with the bloody Sundays and the police beatings, the dogs and the deaths of both black and white protesters. Selma was the last great march, which ended the earlier phase of the Civil Rights movement, and arguably opened another one. And with it some historians noted that Martin Luther King underwent his own transformation, as America and King faced new challenges. It was a complex time for both the Civil Rights Movement and for King, as polls indicated that faith in the movement began to wane, especially in the minds of sympathetic white liberals, and King felt the challenge of the emerging black power movement, which questioned his commitment to non-violent resistance.
Riots deepened his radicalism
There were those, especially King’s lieutenant Bayard Rustin, who concluded that it was King’s experience with the Watts riot in Los Angeles in August 1965 that deepened his radicalism and convinced him that the time had come to bring the Civil Rights Movement from the South to the North, especially Chicago and its suburbs. And so he led marches through the poorer precincts of Chicago, where he was physically assaulted, and through white suburbs such as Cicero, Illinois, where the hatred was vitriolic.
When King launched a civil rights campaign in Chicago in 1965, he was shocked by the hatred and violence expressed by working-class whites as he and his followers marched through the streets of segregated neighborhoods in Chicago and its suburbs. He saw that the problem in Chicago’s ghetto was not legal segregation but “economic exploitation”—slum housing, overpriced food and low-wage jobs—“because someone profits from its existence.”
These experiences led King to develop a more radical outlook. King supported President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty in 1964, but, like his friend and ally Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, King thought that it did not go nearly far enough. As early as October 1964, he called for a “gigantic Marshall Plan” for the poor — black and white. That’s when he began to talk openly about radical-but-practical solutions to America’s problems, including some version of democratic socialism.
In 1966, King confided to his staff:
“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
To be clear, King was not a communist. In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here?, King wrote:
“This revolution of values must go beyond traditional capitalism and communism. We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged sweet hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that…they are unmoved by suffering poverty-stricken humanity. The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspire men to be more I-centered than thou-centered.
Truth is found in neither traditional capitalism nor in classical communism. Each represents a partial truth…Capitalism fails to see the truth in collectivism. Communism fails to realize that life is personal.”
Racism linked to evils of capitalism and poverty
It was in this period that King’s philosophy of American society and the roots of racism coalesced around a grand synthesis that joined together the evils of racism, with capitalism, poverty materialism and imperialism. All these social ills were interrelated and mutually reinforcing, suggesting again that the end of racism would have to be tied to a revolutionary reconstruction of American society, its economy, its instructions and it values. It was at this point that his analysis of racism became global.
While King held to these views throughout his career, it was in the last years of his life that they took on a special urgency and became more pronounced in his sermons and speeches, both to his more immediate followers and in the public at large.
Though he put forward these ideas in various venues, perhaps the best way to illustrate them is to invoke the phenomenal speech King gave in opposition to the Vietnam War. The speech represented a major and very painful milestone in his career. That famous oration was given to an overflow crowd of more than 3,000 at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly to the day one year before he was murdered.
The rendering of that speech had a very difficult birth and the fact that he delivered it is a testament, I believe without a shred of cynicism, to Martin Luther King’s extraordinary integrity and his monumental courage.
Liberal backers saw no link between Memphis and Mekong Delta
King had been warned not to speak out against the War and the opposition he received was not just from the public, but from his own lieutenants and trusted advisers, associates and comrades. He was told that as a civil rights leader he was not qualified to speak about international affairs. He was warned by colleagues that speaking out against the war would cut down on contributions from his liberal backers who saw no connection between Mississippi and the Mekong Delta. Speaking out against the war would antagonize Lyndon Johnson, whose political support he needed to pass legislation.
In the eyes of many who saw King as a hero, he became not a hero but a “communist dupe,” a “troublemaker,” a “traitor,” or at best “very naïve.”
After he delivered the speech, The Washington Post criticized his “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy” and lamented how “many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence.”
The New York Times called Dr. King’s remarks both “facile” and “slander.” It said the moral issues in Vietnam “are less clear-cut than he suggests” and warned that “to divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating,”
But King gave that speech anyway. And I truly believe it was because he thought that the War was a great evil and he simply could not remain silent.
As he said in his introduction,
“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.”
And then joining together racism and poverty he noted the following:
“Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
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.
America “greatest purveyor of violence”
In that speech having called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” King declared that “we are called to speak for the weak, voiceless, for victims of our nation, and for those it calls enemy; for no document from human hands can make these humans any less than our brothers.”
Here was Martin Luther King, using the power of his moral conviction to draw a line between American militarism at its worse, the excesses of capitalism, which institutionalized poverty for the benefit of the greed of the powerful, all feeding into the crime of racism, which oppressed his black brothers and corrupted his fellow white citizens whom he refused to give up on.
Martin Luther King was a crusader against the scourge of racism. He was an enemy of violence. He was an apostle of love. He was a champion of the dispossessed and he was a citizen of the world.
He stood against the bleak forces that have come over us with such menacing power. If he were with us today, he would be fighting against the enduring ugliness of racism, but even more militantly. He would decry the evils of an economic system that has divided our society perhaps more than he could imagine. He would condemn the scapegoating of the immigrant and the refugee. And as an internationalist, he would speak out against the excesses of globalization and he would fervently condemn a small-minded and hateful nationalism, which has cast a pall over our nation and others as well.
But my point has been that he would be doing this not as a bleeding-heart do-gooder, not as a naïve idealist or a rosy optimist. Not as a “dreamer.” But as a radical and revolutionary, militant and passionate activist, who hated what America was doing, but did not hate this country, and as someone who knew that love was not a sign of weakness but of enduring and courageous strength and power.
Letter from the Birmingham Jail
I would like to end with my favorite passage from King’s early period, which he inscribed in the justly famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” which, in my opinion, is one of the finest pieces of prose writing in the English language in the 20th century. In it he makes the case for “the fierce urgency of now,” a message we certainly need to hear in our times.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.
For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.