Jan. 15, on what should have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 85th birthday, is time to reflect on his legacy and re-imagine the significance of commemorations attached to his name.
King’s outsized iconography towers over contemporary American race relations. Through a hard-won national holiday, hundreds of books, an endowed lecture series and, in 2012, a memorial dedicated in the nation’s capital, King’s image has become a permanent fixture in public memory.
King’s prophetic vision of American democracy, heroic efforts to mobilize black Americans for justice and brief, sacrificial time on the public stage have become part of a national mythology about the civil rights era. In this telling, King emerges as a talented individual whose rhetorical genius at the March on Washington helped elevate an entire nation through his moral power and sheer force of will. Like the Old Testament prophet Moses, King was allowed to see but not cross over into the Promised Land.
President Barack Obama hailed King’s legacy as offering inspiration for his own presidential run in 2008, and he characterized himself as part of a “Joshua Generation,” whose ability to achieve professional and political success derived from the sacrifices made by King and earlier generations.
Yet missing from many of the annual King celebrations is the portrait of a political revolutionary who, over time, evolved into a radical warrior for peace, justice and the eradication of poverty. During his last three years, King the “Dreamer” turned into one of the most eloquent, powerful and scathing critics of American society. King lent his moral force and power to antipoverty crusades that questioned the economic system of capitalism and called for an end to the Vietnam War.
King’s friendship with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Stokely Carmichael also affected his political outlook. Although he disagreed with the term “black power,” he refused to criticize Carmichael or the movement he gave name to. Carmichael’s vociferous human rights declarations touched King and helped inspire his own more celebrated antiwar stance. On April 15, 1967, Carmichael served as a powerful warm-up act to King’s keynote at a massive peace demonstration that began in New York’s Central Park and ended at the United Nations.
Conservatives, liberals and moderate civil rights leaders claimed that King was in over his head, suggesting that he had been mesmerized by black power militants, and discrediting his foreign affairs expertise in a manner that sought to undermine his legitimacy as a Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist.
To King’s credit, though, the more denunciation he received, the further he pressed on. By 1968, he was in the middle of organizing the ambitious Poor People’s Campaign, designed to bring together a multicultural sampling of the nation’s poor to camp in a tent city on the Washington Mall until Congress passed significant antipoverty legislation. According to King, the war on poverty had been sacrificed by expenditures spent in Vietnam.
In an unwitting testament to his commitment to the struggle of working Americans, King was assassinated amid a campaign to rally sanitation workers on strike for decent wages and better working conditions in Memphis, Tenn.
Yet King’s powerful rage against economic exploitation and war is often overlooked when we think of him as only a race-healer. King’s well-remembered adherence to nonviolence often obscures his use of other tactics. He vowed to never use violence, and he kept this promise, but King sought to bend the will of the American people on behalf of the dispossessed (including, but not limited to, African-Americans) and used speeches, demonstrations, time spent in jail and camp-ins to achieve his goals.
The passionate orator who told a crowd during his last speech that he was defying an injunction against demonstrations because “the greatness of America lies in the right to protest for right” has vanished in the holiday’s celebrations, replaced instead by the image of the dreamer at the March on Washington five years earlier.
But King was more than a simple dreamer or a lone individual who inspired the black community. The black-freedom struggle made King, just as he, in turn, helped shape the movement. And MLK, ultimately, was no less a revolutionary than Malcolm X.
King’s accolades have come at a high cost — it took his death for America to embrace him. And the price for national esteem has been to strip the memory of one our most revolutionary figures of the political radicalism that made him one of the most effective political leaders in history. Ironically, it’s what allows us to celebrate his life for a day near the anniversary of his birth.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a history professor at Tufts University. He also is a fellow for Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute and author of “Waiting âTil the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America” and “Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama.”