The forgotten Dr. Martin Luther King
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Commemorations are always complicated. How someone or something is remembered is never just about the facts but about how the legacy is related over time, most especially by those in power.
As April 4th approached, there unfolded ever broadening discussions about the legacy of Martin Luther King, as one would expect. One of the more important examples of this has been increased awareness of Dr. King’s significance as a leader in the struggles for economic justice, including but not limited to the Memphis sanitation workers strike. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees along with the Church of God and Christ joined together to host commemorative activities in Memphis and to encourage on-going social justice activism.
Despite this, and the platitudes offered regarding King’s significance, it is easy to forget the level of controversy that surrounded King, particularly in the last two years of his life. King was not, for instance, the indisputable leader of the Black Freedom Movement. There were many and varied currents within the movement and while King was very well respected, this did not mean that his leadership went unquestioned. The most obvious example of this was the growing Black Power Movement that held a different analysis of the USA, what was possible, and what should be the central thrust of the Black Freedom Movement.
King’s denunciation of the US role in Vietnam put him at odds with many liberals of all racial/ethnic groups who believed that speaking on foreign policy was a distraction from what King should have been addressing. The Johnson administration saw King’s criticism as a betrayal and much of the media turned their backs on him.
And certainly it was the case that King’s work on economic justice, including the Poor People’s Campaign and his support for labor unions, was not something around which a consensus had been built in the Black Freedom Movement. Michael Honey, in his new book, To the Promised Land, helps the reader appreciate King’s centering of economic justice and the manner in which he connected it with racial justice. Yet there were those in the Black Freedom Movement who had a very different orientation, one that believed that the focus should be on business and individual advancement.
Much of this history has either been forgotten or construed differently. The one thing that I wish to highlight, something many of us who were politically conscious and/or active at the time of King’s life (and death) failed to appreciate, was the revolutionary component of King and his work. For many of us baby-boomers, the definition of being a revolutionary focused on one’s attitude toward non-violence vs. armed self-defense, and in some cases, armed struggle. It was inconceivable, for many of us, that someone advocating non-violence could, at one and the same time have a vision for the social transformation of the USA, a vision, I might add, that was to the left of many of those militant Black Power advocates who ultimately advanced notions of Black capitalism.
The forgotten Dr. King, then, was a leader who was attempting to unite a workers movement with a racial justice movement with a movement for global human rights. He knew and stated that there was violence inherent in the existing system and, indeed, that the USA was the greater purveyor of violence on the planet. He knew and stated that the system, as currently constructed, could not meet the needs of the majority of its population. And, he knew and stated that the job of social justice activists and social revolutionaries was to ceaselessly make the lives of the comfortable uncomfortable.
As a young radical in 1968, and for many years subsequent to ‘68, I missed this point entirely. Despite the respect that I had for the courage and convictions of Dr. King, I failed to recognize that his social revolutionary vision was not only profound but was linked with a strategy of building a majoritarian bloc in the USA that could carry out the sort of domestic and global transformation so badly needed.
There are a host of criticisms that one can offer of Dr. King, including elements of his leadership style and his failure to advance the leadership of women. One can disagree with tactics and strategies employed. But one misses the mark entirely in not grasping the revolutionary thrust of Dr. King’s work.
Hopefully, this April 4th, we can take a few moments to reflect on that thrust; that legacy.