A half century after his assassination, the late Dr Martin Luther King Jr is beloved more than ever all over the world and across the political spectrum. Widely considered one of the greatest of American political leaders and orators, MLK’s accomplishments in helping to defeat racial segregation in the US with the greatest dignity and determination, only to be martyred at the age of 39, have transformed him into a kind of modern saint.
But it’s that very aura of saintliness that’s called into question by the heirs to his legacy. As many of the gains of the Civil Rights movement have been rolled back by the forces of reaction and a new generation struggles against systemic racism, political activists and writers have contended with the whitewashing of MLK. Many politicians and pundits love to quote King out of context and talk about his dream of equality, his love of humanity and his philosophy of nonviolence – anything but his lifelong fight against racism.
King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee 50 years ago this month. In remembering that act of racist terror, the Santa Claus-ifying of MLK seems more egregious than ever. The simple fact is that King was a radical, loathed by conservatives but also abandoned by white liberals. He was impatient with injustice and those who stood in the way of the fight against it, and driven by a burning desire to end war, poverty and oppression in every part of the world. Neoliberal elites paying him lip service have far less in common with him than do today’s leftists, labour agitators and “identity extremists” – from Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street to the Women’s Marches and the massive student and teacher movements now sweeping America.
A look at King’s activist career shows how much he anticipated and influenced today’s politics of protest – and will make you wonder how anyone can even manage to whitewash the legacy of such an uncompromising champion of justice.
King the anti-racist
King is venerated for preaching love and compassion, but the details of the racist system he was organising against tend to get lost in the golden haze of commemoration. The Jim Crow South was an unimaginably brutal apartheid state, where black citizens couldn’t vote, everyday activities like shopping and dining out were barbarously delineated by skin colour, and the danger of racist violence was ever-present. For standing against this system, King was insulted, beaten, threatened with death, arrested countless times and spied on by the federal government. Ultimately, he was killed by white supremacists, as were many of his followers, including white allies.
In calling out white moderates for their lack of support, King described this system unflinchingly: “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 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society… then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
King the disruptor and lawbreaker
King’s famous tactics of civil disobedience are often cited for their nonviolence, but people conveniently forget how disruptive and downright illegal they were. The movement’s methods of occupying businesses and blocking roads were so upsetting to the larger society that, in a typical exchange, a group of white clergymen who nominally opposed segregation wrote to ask him to stop and uphold the law. In his famous response, Letter from Birmingham Jail, he sternly justified his methods: “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Towards the end of his life he only became more trenchant about disruption of business as usual. “Non-violent protest must now mature to a new level, to correspond to heightened black impatience and stiffened white resistance. This high level is mass civil disobedience. There must be more than a statement to the larger society, there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point.”
King the internationalist
In 1959, King travelled to India, in a pilgrimage to the land of one of his greatest influences, Mahatma Gandhi. There, as he recounted later, he was stunned by the dire poverty he witnessed. “How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people going to bed hungry at night?” With a keen analysis of global capitalism, he connected their hardship to his own country’s wealth: “The destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation... I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day to store surplus food.” The experience changed King, and from then on, his focus in the struggle became a global one. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he famously wrote in 1963.
King the antiwar activist and anti-imperialist
One year to the day before he was killed, in a sermon in New York that many consider one of the greatest speeches in human history, King formally declared his opposition to the US government’s “unjust, evil and futile” war in Vietnam. With his supreme gift for identifying the connections between things, he tied his own community’s fight against oppression to that of his Vietnamese brothers and sisters overseas; spoke of the war as “an enemy of the poor”; and warned against the “giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation”. After explaining how much he’d agonised over his position, he said, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.” King’s antiwar stance sparked furious controversy – many liberals began shunning him, he was censured by his own organisation and his approval ratings plummeted.
King the anti-capitalist and labour activist
“There must be a better distribution of wealth in the country,” King said in 1966. “America must move toward a democratic socialism.” MLK’s campaigns to improve the lives of the poor dominated the latter part of his career, and this led him to more and more explicit opposition to the system that kept them down. “The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, here and abroad,” he said. Near the end of his life, he organised the Poor People’s Campaign, culminating in a march on and occupation of Washington DC to demand a “radical redistribution of economic power”.
His last public act was a show of solidarity with striking sanitation workers in Memphis. It’s not hard to imagine King, if he were alive today, standing with the teachers of Oklahoma, the high school students of Florida, the transit workers of Paris or the people of Gaza in their resistance.
Watch Martin Luther King: His Legacy on Wednesday 11 April at 7:30pm on SBS. The documentary will also be available at SBS On Demand.