[Writer Jenn M. Jackson explores the radical nature of Martin
Luther King Jr., whose legacy, she says, was whitewashed over time.]
[https://portside.org/] 

 MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. WAS MORE RADICAL THAN WE REMEMBER  
[https://portside.org/2019-01-15/martin-luther-king-jr-was-more-radical-we-remember]


 

 Jenn M. Jackson 
 January 15, 2019
Teen Vogue
[https://www.teenvogue.com/story/mlk-more-radical-than-we-remember] 

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 _ Writer Jenn M. Jackson explores the radical nature of Martin Luther
King Jr., whose legacy, she says, was whitewashed over time. _ 

 , William H. Alden/Getty Images 

 

The earliest lesson I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. was that he
had “a dream
[https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf].”
Delivered in his most well-known speech at the 1963 March on
Washington, as posed to me and as I understood clearly in my
adolescent mind, that dream was a colorblind one.

That manufactured perspective — often told to young children and
supported by mainstream, predominantly white commentators
[https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bill-o-reilly-martin-luther-king-black-lives-matter_us_57845ef1e4b0ed2111d76764]
— was focused on erasing the divisions between black and white
people, not necessarily by blaming white people for their
participation in systems of anti-black racism, but by moving beyond
racial difference altogether.

But that was never actually King’s dream. His was much more radical
than that.

In 1954, King was finishing a doctoral dissertation
[http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2006/01/13/january-13-2006-martin-luther-king-jr-as-pastor/1788/]
at Boston University. Soon he was thrust into the political limelight
early on in his career as a 25-year-old pastor of Dexter Avenue
Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The political moment
necessitated a radical approach to politics — he was pastoring as
_Brown v. Board of Education_
[http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/brown-v-board-of-education-of-topeka]
was decided, effectively ending legal segregation in the United
States.

This monumental civil rights win, and the promise of freedom of public
movement for black Americans, signaled an era of struggle and triumph
for King and those who believed in his nonviolent cause. On the heels
of _Brown_, King was just 26
[https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2017/01/14/king-shift-from-dreamer-radical-resonates-for-activists/vgiKXE9C5HvyzT0kXEf7PO/story.html]
when he helped facilitate and lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott
[http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/montgomery-bus-boycott],
which started on December 5, 1955, and lasted over a year.

It is estimated that the Montgomery bus lines lost 30,000 to 40,000
bus fares [https://www.nps.gov/articles/montgomery-bus-boycott.htm]
each day because of the boycott. For 381 days, boycotters walked or
carpooled to and from their destinations. The boycott and a legal
challenge forced the Montgomery City Lines bus company to desegregate
their fleet by November 1956, which sparked years of nonviolent
organizing in the South. It was King’s unconventional engagement
tactics, organizing black communities through “direct actions
[https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/strategy.htm]” on buses,
at lunch counters, libraries, and many other public facilities, that
quickly elevated his name among national movement circles and
mainstream media alike.

But this effort didn’t spring forth from nothing. Black women and
girls like 15-year-old Claudette Colvin and 42-year-old Rosa Parks
[https://www.npr.org/2009/03/15/101719889/before-rosa-parks-there-was-claudette-colvin]
first refused to obey segregation laws on Montgomery buses that
relegated black riders to the back rows and mandated they give up
their seats to white riders, and had been gaining attention before its
start. And the pressure-cooker–like conditions of many Southern
cities stoked the flames of a burgeoning civil rights movement
galvanized by the gruesome kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old
Chicago-born Emmett Till
[https://www.loc.gov/collections/civil-rights-history-project/articles-and-essays/murder-of-emmett-till/]
while visiting family in Money, Mississippi, in August 1955. Till’s
murder had a profound effect
[http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_till_emmett_louis_1941_1955/index.html]
on King, as it represented the horrors of the anti-black racism he was
bracing himself to stand against.

By 1963, the year four little girls were killed
[https://www.teenvogue.com/story/what-you-should-know-about-the-four-girls-killed-in-the-1963-birmingham-bombing]
in cold blood by KKK members, King had already made frequent trips to
Birmingham, Alabama, even getting arrested during his nonviolent
protests of racial segregation with the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference (SCLC).

The sanitized version of King’s life and work — the colorblind
“I have a dream” narrative — often fails to acknowledge how
King’s increasing profile as a radical, anti-racist organizer drew
antagonism from the FBI and its director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover
[https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/11/04/in-the-latest-jfk-files-the-fbis-ugly-analysis-on-martin-luther-king-jr-filled-with-falsehoods/?utm_term=.16f564b7e27f],
which began as early as 1964, four years before he was assassinated.

In fact, in October 1963, U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy
[https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/07/the-fbi-and-martin-luther-king/302537/]
authorized secret wiretapping of King’s phones and kept the
surveillance under wraps until a few weeks after the assassination.
The FBI’s continued use of surveillance, in tandem with its efforts
to defame King as a Communist sympathizer
[https://www.thedailybeast.com/martin-luther-king-jr-a-communist-why-hes-been-whitewashed],
hardly comports with passive stories one would expect of the peaceful,
nonconfrontational character often described today. But rather than a
truthful reckoning with his radical positions on justice, many cling
to King’s earlier quotes and work, misrepresenting the full gamut of
his contributions to the justice tradition. Just last year, the FBI
attempted to “honor” King by quoting him on Twitter
[https://thegrapevine.theroot.com/fbi-conspired-against-martin-luther-king-jr-49-years-1794010925].
Yet the bureau didn’t follow up its tweet with any explanation as to
how such an honorable man was once one of its greatest adversaries.

King was a staunch antiwar activist and spoke firmly against U.S.
militarism in the Vietnam War
[http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-history]. In an
April 1967 speech called “Beyond Vietnam,” King called the war
[https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam]
“madness.” This was a deeply radical and polarizing opinion in a
moment when protests
[http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war-timeline] of the war had
begun erupting across the country in New York, San Francisco, and
Washington, D.C. In no uncertain terms, King articulated his
opposition to the war in Vietnam, saying, “I knew that America would
never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its
poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and
skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was
increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to
attack it as such.”

These opinions not only made him unpopular
[https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/04/opinion/when-martin-luther-king-came-out-against-vietnam.html],
as 64% of Americans approved
[http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/07/opinion/l-polls-tell-us-no-more-than-where-we-are-vietnam-war-opinion-139188.html]
of the war according to an October 1965 Gallup poll, they highlighted
his increasing distance from mainstream American politics that called
for
[https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-rise-of-respectability-politics]
the respectability, quiet assimilation, and “good” behavior of
black Americans. In fact, polling during the 1960s reflects how
polarizing King’s radical work truly was for U.S. citizens. In 1965,
Gallup found
[http://news.gallup.com/poll/20920/martin-luther-king-jr-revered-more-after-death-than-before.aspx]
that King had a 45% positive and 45% negative rating. And in 1966, the
last year he was included in the poll, his positive rating dropped to
32% while his negative rating increased to 63%. However, by 2011, his
rating
[http://www.slate.com/blogs/weigel/2011/08/26/when_martin_luther_king_was_hated_and_unpopular.html]
was 94% positive. This vast swing in approval of King today isn’t
rooted in his radical legacy. Rather, it is the product of generations
of appropriation of his liberatory work and a whitening of his effort
to ensure more freedom for those least likely to attain it in the
United States.

Figures like President Barack Obama have reminded us that King once
said
[https://www.thedailybeast.com/obama-loves-martin-luther-kings-great-quotebut-he-uses-it-incorrectly],
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward
justice.” But over time, the great orator’s writings became less
magnanimous and ever more convinced that white supremacy was the most
significant obstacle in attaining liberation for all black people.

In his final book, _Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?_,
originally published in 1967, King wrote that “Whites, it must
frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate
themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their
sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they
have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to
assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro
neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all
too many white Americans.”

He continued: “These are the deepest causes for contemporary
abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality,
resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but
for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He
remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly
raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step
forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”

By this point in his life, King had abandoned the rose-colored glasses
of his youth. Instead, he was laser-focused on addressing white
supremacy in its basest and most intimate forms: in communities,
schools, and neighborhoods. This departure from his colorblind
rhetoric of yore was an indication that King was becoming politicized
by his experiences in the movement.

Essentially, he was getting woke.

King’s beliefs in a more radical vision for America became manifest
in his later social organizing work. In early 1968, King planned the
Poor People’s Campaign
[https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/index.php/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/],
a march on Washington, D.C., meant to demand greater attention to the
economic disparities between class groups, disparities that most
frequently had a disproportionate effect on black people. The campaign
had a radical vision, one that demanded access to housing, employment,
and health care for those historically denied those rights. While it
had no specific racial target, it challenged Congress to pass sweeping
anti-poverty legislation
[https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91626373].

Unfortunately, King was killed before he was able to complete the Poor
People’s March. He was 39 years old. While as many as 50,000 people
marched on Washington, the effort fizzled out with King’s leadership
as thenation mourned his death.

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we would do his memory justice by
honoring _all_ of his legacy. Not just the parts that make white
Americans comfortable.

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