As we approach the 89th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birth, I’m once again bracing myself for vapid tributes and white-washed histories, as politicians and pundits whose ideologies run directly counter to King’s praise him while simultaneously sanitizing everything he actually stood for.
It’s a rare public figure who won’t share in the revisionist hagiography. To most Americans, King is the man who said “I have a dream” that children of all colors can “sit down together” as Americans and be “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” — in other words, he stood for what, at least until recently, we all — publicly — could agree on: racial equality under the law.
Unless you are a vehement bigot, the King we are introduced to in elementary school, the King of our national holiday, the King of postage stamps and presidential proclamations, is easy to agree with. And it’s also easy to confuse his commitment to nonviolence with a call to be nice, to avoid confrontation, to suppress anger over injustice.
But this is not who King was.
His call for nonviolence was as much an opposition to armed rebellion as it was to America’s militaristic foreign policy. “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
Notice the word “all”. King’s well-known objection to the war in Vietnam was part of his less well-known objection to all war and all violence. Where many Americans wanted the US out of Southeast Asia because we were losing, and some wanted us out because they believed that particular war was immoral, King wanted us out because “war is obsolete.” He did not shy from righteous anger — listen to his speech at the Riverside church, a year to the day before his murder, or read Letter from a Birmingham Jail — but his Christian worldview regarded war as a failure of both morals and imagination, and he saw all forms of violence as a failure to heed Christ’s call to love.
He also saw the excesses of capitalism in the same way. “Capitalism forgets that life is social…and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis… that combines the truths of both.” He identified as a Christian democratic socialist.
King identified “the triple evils” that hold the United States in their grasp as “militarism, materialism, and racism,” (or sometimes “war, poverty and racism”) and wrote that these three are “inextricably linked”. This is a deep critique of our institutions and ideologies, not a placid call to “all get along” or play nice. King wasn’t looking to simply obtain admittance for black Americans into the system of war and capital; he was looking for a “revolution of values” that would completely transform society from its violent, racist, materialistic pursuits into “the beloved community”.
These beliefs are rooted in Biblical Christianity; there’s no question King’s Christ is more fully aligned with the Gospels than the Jesus proffered by the GOP — a Jesus who seems unconcerned with poverty or violence, but very upset by men kissing each other. The Republican Jesus is more like a magical Caesar in the sky than the itinerant Jewish preacher of the New Testament, teaching love.
But King’s Jesus is recognizable; he elevates justice, compassion, peace, poverty. To separate King’s work on civil rights and race from his commitment to nonviolence, love, and Christianity is a mistake of cosmic proportions. They are, like war, white supremacy, and capitalism, inextricably linked.
Don’t agree with King? That’s ok. But for the sake of intellectual honesty, can we stop pretending that the America of today is in any way aligned with or honoring King’s legacy? Can we stop omitting the heart and soul of his radical philosophy, pretending he’s only a half-step from some sugary sweet kindergarten teacher, about to lead a chorus of Kumbaya?
King was a radical revolutionary, opposed to the machinations of American power, a champion of the poor, killed while supporting a wildcat strike of Memphis sanitation workers, just as concerned about economic justice as racial justice, with international peace as with Jim Crow, and calling on all of us to build an entirely new world based not on material greed or the violent pursuit of power and wealth, but on our common humanity.
Take King as he was or, please, leave him alone.