Remembering the radicalism of MLK Jr.
Nothing really original from me today, but as I sit here letting our nation’s yearly tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. wash over me, I’m again reflecting how tame the media likes to make King seem.
These reminiscences treat King as though his demands weren’t radical. As though he weren’t widely hated in the nation he sought to make more free (he had a 75% unfavorability rating at the time of his death).
As though his work was confined to the explicitly segregationist south and had nothing to say about the broader, more cloaked racism of our economic system.
I was reminded of a 2018 essay by the brilliant Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor at Princeton and, lately, a contributor at the New Yorker. Taylor reminds us that King was in the middle of a hard philosophical and political shift in the months before he was assassinated.
This shift came as a result not of the landmark civil rights struggle that took place in the Jim Crow south but the struggle that came next: seeking a universal betterment for black folks across America, especially including what he called the “northern ghettos” of cities like Chicago.
It led King to think expansively about how domestic policy is inextricably woven with foreign policy and how the lives of poor black people are inextricably tied to the poor of all races, ethnicities and other differences.
It led to some pretty intense rhetoric that sounds increasingly familiar today. Taylor writes:
[King’s] political maturation prompted him to connect the U.S. war in Vietnam to the deteriorating conditions in U.S. cities, and of even more consequence, it prompted him to search for more effective tactics in confronting the legal menace of segregation in the North and the attendant crises: slum conditions, unemployment, and police brutality.
Within this context, King began to publicly articulate an anticapitalist analysis of the United States that put him in sync with rising critiques from the global revolutionary left of market-based economies. Despite the “affluence” of the United States, it was, nevertheless, wracked by poverty and entrenched in an endless war. King masterfully tore down the wall that the political and economic establishments used to separate domestic policies from foreign policies. He debunked the lie at the core of the Johnson administration that they could deliver both guns and butter, and he pointed out how the Vietnam War made it impossible to satisfy the deep need that existed on the home front. Moreover, any society invested in the evisceration of the Vietnamese people could not truly be a society committed to developing the human potential of its own people.
King’s realization was the need for even greater forces to be recruited into the movement to achieve social transformation within the United States. By the end of his life, King recognized the coercive power of other forms of disobedience. In planning a Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C., he called for extralegal protests not aimed at undoing unjust laws but in the name of political and economic demands that represented the interests of the majority. In Memphis, during the sanitation workers strike in 1968, he called for a general strike to shut down the entire city.
In a story published a week before his assassination, King told Jose Yglesias in the New York Times magazine, “In a sense you could say we are engaged in the class struggle.” The civil rights movement had not cost a dime, he said, but the movement to uproot poverty and inequality throughout the country would “be a long and difficult struggle, for our program calls for a redistribution of economic power.” Even as King recognized the need for a broader, multiracial struggle to successfully engage in a “radical revolution of values,” he still understood the dialectic connecting the black movement to a larger reckoning in the United States.
I won’t spend too much time offering my thoughts — Taylor is one of the most powerful thinkers I know of, and her work stands alone — except to say that, despite hearing about King constantly in school (where even in my small rural district we studied the civil rights movement almost every year in January and during Black History Month in Feb) I was mostly ignorant to this phase of King’s activism.
I don’t remember learning at all how the move from attacking de jure segregation in the south — where the enemies were clear and the battle lines dug in — to a more perniciously disguised de facto segregation in the north not only caused King to change tactics, but also to adopt a fascinating and, in some ways, more universal language of struggle against economic oppression.
The northern elites who had at least given tacit endorsement to his campaign in the South deserted or outright opposed these efforts, which led him to seek building a broad-based coalition of the oppressed.
His final effort — a march on Washington he would not live to see — was called “the Poor People’s Campaign” and within its umbrella he sought to unite everyone facing exploitation under American capitalism. According to the King Institute at Stanford:
“This is a highly significant event,” King told delegates at an early planning meeting, describing the campaign as “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity” (SCLC, 15 March 1968). Many leaders of American Indian, Puerto Rican, Mexican American, and poor white communities pledged themselves to the Poor People’s Campaign.
It’s immediately obvious how deeply threatening this shift would have made King to America’s ruling power structures, and perhaps underscores why this aspect of his evolution is so often diminished in official remembrances.
And while it’s absolutely appropriate to use these remembrances to keep alive our memory of the horrific violence and oppression wrought during Jim Crow, we must also remember the fight he left unfinished.
Nearly 53 years after his assassination, de jure segregation is still illegal and de facto segregation is — in many parts of the country — worse than ever. Wage and wealth inequality is also worse now than it was in King’s day, as is the plight of all workers who labor under this system.
This is a fight King was unable to see through in his lifetime.
It’s a fight that continues to this day.