Every year, Dr. Martin Luther King, a civil rights activist, is commemorated for his words which inspired a chain of peaceful protests in the 1950s and early 60s that caused America to reevaluate its segregation and disenfranchisement laws, ultimately resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today, MLK’s peaceful rhetoric has been weaponized as a way to wrongfully critique the Black Lives Matter movement, and his legacy has been largely watered down to his Letter from the Birmingham Jail and his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech given on the Lincoln Memorial. MLK’s mission went past what many Americans perceive him as and was much more radical than most remember him as.
Dr. King had always shown signs of radicalism, and many were quick to dismiss the signs of these philosophies.
After his assassination in 1968, James Baldwin, an American activist and poet, compared King’s work with Malcolm X’s, stating they began “at what seemed to be very different points … and espousing, or representing very different philosophies,” but “by the time each met his death there was practically no difference between them.”
However, King constantly criticized white moderates, this became especially apparent in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he tore into the image of white liberals who “deplored the [civil rights] demonstrations,” but not the “conditions that brought the demonstrations about.”
His letter challenges the lack of empathy these moderates showed towards the treatment of Black men and women.
At the height of his work, King was despised and feared by a majority of white Americans as a radical. As a seminary student, he had been influenced by the Christian socialist thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr, and both of them supported the idea of social injustice stemming from political and economic power being in the hands of a singular, dominant group.
Affecting primarily Black Americans (and poor white Americans), this belief largely explained the conditions African Americans found themselves in as something that was due to the economics of structural racism. In an era when anti-communist sentiment was pervasive, it was dangerous for African American leaders to express left-wing views.
King embraced Marxist-inflected thoughts, and in his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” he argued that capitalism has led to a gap between the wealthy and poverty. Also, it has created conditions “permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few.”
King’s fight against poverty, militarism, materialism and racism is severely undermentioned in modern media. Instead, his own words are used against the modern day fight for racial justice.
Martin Luther King III was met with extreme backlash, many stating he was taking his own father’s words out of context. The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been politicized in a way to silence the outrage of the same people MLK would have given a platform to.
Dr. King died with an extremely high disapproval rate. He would be shocked to see how popular he has become. He would be even more shocked to see how his rhetoric was being used today.
Learning the true history behind his work, not simply accepting his more popular sayings, is how we must commemorate his work.