Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

There are only a few days left in our critical Mid-Year Campaign and we truly might not make it without your help.
Please join us. If you rely on independent media, support Common Dreams today. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

MLK_day

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before a crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of the Alabama state capital building on March 25, 1965. (Photo: Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)

Martin Luther King's Radicalism Would Not Be Celebrated Today

To honor King we should uphold his critiques of militarism, capitalism, and racism and remember him for what he was: a radical.

Holly Genovese

 by OpenDemocracy.net

As we mourn Martin Luther King Jr. and celebrate his life, we must remember that he was violently assassinated. His ideas were seen as radical and dangerous. He critiqued liberals and moderates and did not have the approval of most Americans. So what if we instead celebrate King as a leader who gave his life to a movement focused on Black people, on poor people, on labor activism and anti-war sentiments. What if we celebrate King as he was: a radical?

By celebrating a sanitized image of King, filled with out-of-context quotes and vague ideas about peace, we disrespect his legacy and all that he worked for.

King was a critic of the Vietnam War and a supporter of workers' rights. He was a formerly incarcerated gun-owner, stalked by the FBI, accused of communist leanings though he loudly critiqued the Communist Party, and was staunchly opposed to wealth inequality and poverty. If he lived today, he would not be celebrated for these beliefs, at least not in the mainstream. By celebrating a sanitized image of King, filled with out-of-context quotes and vague ideas about peace, we disrespect his legacy and all that he worked for. Yes, King believed in nonviolent resistance. But like all people, his ideologies and beliefs changed over time. His ideas about what constituted resistance were complex, disruptive, and often ended in violence by the opposition.

King's method of nonviolent resistance was a political tactic, designed to showcase the violence of white opposition throughout America's South. Nonviolent did not mean nondisruptive —from the march to Montgomery on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to King's support of the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, King's ideology relied on the disruption of capitalism, of transportation and of everyday life. As conservatives co-opt King's lineage and ask 'What would King think?' after every protest of police violence, they further the myth that what King did was easy, was accepted, and did not disrupt or inconvenience the lives of white people. This couldn't be further from the truth.

Not only did King fight for civil rights, but he also argued for a Universal Basic Income and the creation of a 'nonviolent army of the poor' through his poor people's campaign, continued by his wife after his assassination. The platform of King's Poor People's Campaign involved a demand for a $30bn dollar investment in a 'real war on poverty' —a direct critique of democratic president Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. He also wanted a guaranteed annual wage for all Americans and the building of quality low-cost housing across the United States. To contend with King's legacy and beliefs, we have to acknowledge that many of them centered around poverty.

Ironically, some of the best evidence of King's radical ideas comes from the FBI's counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), led by J. Edgar Hoover, which followed King for years and suspected him of communism. In a 1966 Gallup Poll, King's approval rating was at 33%. This dismantles the idea that King had universal support at the time of his activism.

By co-opting King's public image, conservatives (and liberals, too) can align themselves with historical civil rights battles while ignoring ongoing issues of labor rights, police violence, and the housing crisis in most major cities across the US. They can volunteer at 'non-political' events on Martin Luther King Day, when disruption, protest and mutual aid were central to King's ideology. Not charity. Not peace. As was the protest of unjust laws. King wrote: "there are two types of laws: just and unjust… one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." This commitment to disobedience above all, and to equitable access to housing, living wages, and justice for Black Americans in particular, is what we should celebrate when focusing on King's legacy.


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.
holly

Holly Genovese

Holly Genovese is a writer, activist and PhD student in American Studies at UT Austin. Her work focuses on African American aesthetic resistance to incarceration in the American South. Her academic work has been published in Quaker Studies, Fabric, and Invisible No More: The African American Experience at the University of South Carolina. Her essays and criticism have been published in Teen Vogue, Jacobin, The Washington Post, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Public Seminar, and The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Progressive Delia Ramirez Defeats Billionaire PAC Money to Win Illinois Primary

"Billionaires and their super PACs are spending millions to defeat progressive candidates," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, who endorsed Ramirez. "They have the money, but we've got the people."

Jake Johnson ·


'Witness Intimidation. Clear as Day': Jan. 6 Panel Teases Evidence of Cover-Up Effort

"Add witness tampering to the laundry list of crimes Trump and his allies must be charged with," said professor Robert Reich.

Jessica Corbett ·


'Bombshell After Bombshell' Dropped as Jan. 6 Testimony Homes In On Trump Guilt

"Hutchinson's testimony of the deeply detailed plans of January 6 and the inaction of those in the White House in response to the violence show just how close we came to a coup," said one pro-democracy organizer.

Brett Wilkins ·


Mark Meadows 'Did Seek That Pardon, Yes Ma'am,' Hutchinson Testifies

The former aide confirmed that attorney Rudy Giuliani also sought a presidential pardon related to the January 6 attack.

Jessica Corbett ·


UN Chief Warns of 'Ocean Emergency' as Leaders Confront Biodiversity Loss, Pollution

"We must turn the tide," said Secretary-General António Guterres. "A healthy and productive ocean is vital to our shared future."

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo