MLK Day: The Legacy of the Man & the Myth

Long gone are the days when white American radicals turned their collective backs on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), and embraced Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. In those heady days during the late 1960s, King sounded, at least to young protesters against the War in Vietnam, like a reformer who belonged to the church, not a revolutionary from “the hood.” Indeed, King was a Baptist preacher and a civil rights activist who insisted on the power of love— he meant agape not eros— and who was not a spokesman for Black Power, guerrilla warfare or violent revolution, though he wanted total “war” through non-violent means to achieve social and economic equality.

“The American racial revolution,” he wrote in 1967—a year before he died—“has been a revolution to ‘get in’ rather than to overthrow. We want a share in the American economy.”

This January, when we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—which was first observed in 1986—we might look back at the man who worried about language and about figures of speech as much as he worried about moral issues, and who insisted “a leader has to be concerned with the problems of semantics.”

In the preface to a recent book titled To Shape a New World, that offers fifteen essays about King, the editors, Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry, write that MLK has been both ritually celebrated and intellectually marginalized and that his “legacy has suffered collateral damage.” They call, not for “hagiography,” but for critical thinking and they remind us that “patriarchy and sexism” didn’t make his list of “evils.” It’s also worth saying that King’s “legacy” will be decided not only in the halls of academia but in the streets and wherever humans the world over confront plutocrats and the profit motive and aim to escape from the spiritual wasteland of the twenty-first century.

King’s idea about leadership and problems of semantics came to him soon after he met with Stokely Carmichael and his comrades in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), They rubbed him the wrong way, but they also prompted him to revaluate his ideas and his values and to shift his beliefs. Indeed, while he rejected “Black Power” as a slogan and as a strategy, he recognized that “Negroes”—as he called them—would have to have political clout or they would remain disenfranchised, trapped in poverty and excluded from the American Dream.

In 1967, in an essay titled “Black Power” which is included in his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King wrote that “one of the great problems that the Negro confronts is his lack of power.” A year later in a speech entitled “All Labor Has Dignity,” which he delivered to union workers in Memphis, Tennessee, he said, unequivocally, “We need power.” He meant power in all its manifestations: economic, political, social and cultural.

Also, while he made fun of Franz Fanon as “a black psychiatrist from Martinique” who had screwy ideas about violence and liberation, he understood that Negroes would have to liberate themselves by reaching down into the “inner depths” of their being and sign “with the pen and ink of assertive selfhood his own emancipation proclamation.” King called violence “the twin of materialism” and wanted no part of either one.

Had he lived he might have moved closer to the Black Power movement and to the Black Panthers. After all, he was deeply moved by the generation of young black men who didn’t want to fight and die in Vietnam and who often refused to join the U.S. military. In his April 4, 1967 speech in which he denounced his own government “as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” he explained that he had walked and talked with “angry young men” who asked him, “What about Vietnam?”

He went on to say, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes,” without first raising a voice against the war in Vietnam which he saw as a war that was “the enemy of the poor.” King might have become even more critical of the War in Vietnam—it lasted seven years after his death—and more boisterous in his denunciations of “the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” But he was also a kind of prisoner of the civil rights movement, which he had led so well and for so long, from Montgomery to Birmingham to Selma. He had helped to orchestrate the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and to bring about the end of legal segregation in the South. He was rightfully proud of the achievements of the movement for integration, but he also exaggerated victories and underestimated the power of racists who wanted to disenfranchise blacks by any means necessary, including redistricting, intimidation and outright theft of the right to vote.

In The Trumpet of Conscience (1968), King noted that we “we totally disrupted the system, the lifestyle of Birmingham, and then of Selma,” and broke the “coalition” of “unprogressive Northerners” and “representatives of the rural South.” Richard Nixon would bring that coalition back in his so-called “Southern strategy” and so would successive Republican candidates for the presidency, from Reagan to Bush to Trump. The system King claimed to have broken seems to be alive in Jeff Sessions Alabama today, though it might not be well.

At the end of his life, King recognized that much remained to be done. “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” he asked. “What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?” But he seemed to be unsure how to advance the cause and what role if any he had to play.

“I don’t know what will happen now,” he said in a speech he delivered on April 3, 1968. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.” He sounded like a man who was bowing out of the struggle. “It doesn’t matter with me now,” he said in that same speech. “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you.” Two months earlier in a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, he told the congregation, “I don’t want a long funeral…tell them not to mention I have a Nobel Peace Prize…I’d like somebody to say that…Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.” How sad he sounds!

Before he was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, he was caught up as much as ever before in the language of love. He held on to many of the concepts that no longer captured the imaginations of young blacks and young whites, who accepted the invitation that the Panthers offered to join them in the revolution.

In Soul on Ice (1968), Eldridge Cleaver wrote that “There is in America today a generation of young white youth that is truly worthy of a black mans respect, and this is a rare event in the foul annals of American history.” I was part of that generation. Like many others my age, I turned away from King and his dream and toward the Panthers, many of whom were assassinated. In December 1969, I protested the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Chicago Panthers and was arrested and beaten in jail. It was hard to rally behind King’s banner of “love” when police murdered young black men and when corporations urged consumers to love cars, burgers, sneakers and more.

In the late 1960s, while Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale wanted black youth and white youth to band together, King argued, as late as 1967, that, “What is most needed is a coalition of Negroes and liberal whites that will work to make both parties truly responsive to the needs of the poor.”

By 1968, he seemed to have given up on white liberals, but rather looked toward the black masses he called upon to boycott white-owned corporations. “We are asking you tonight not to buy Coca-Cola…not to buy Sealtest milk…not to buy…Wonder Bread,” he told workers in Memphis in April. He added, “Take your money out of the banks downtown.”

That notion of withdrawing funds from banks—(which he calls “downtown” and not “white”)—and boycotting big corporations, derived from Gandhi’s ideas about how to best win Indian independence from the British. In 1968, it wasn’t Gandhi who appealed to young African Americans and young whites, but rather Fanon, Che, Malcolm X and Mao.

“These are revolutionary times,” King observed in 1967, though he himself wasn’t exactly a revolutionary. After all, he argued that same year, that “The Negro must show that the white man has nothing to fear for the Negro is willing to forgive.” H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael wanted what they called the “white power structure” to fear Black Power. As far back as 1848, revolutionaries wanted the bourgeois to fear the “specter of revolution.”

In his 2015 anthology of King’s writings and speeches, entitled The Radical King, Professor Cornel West makes a case for King as a “revolutionary,” though he adds that he was also a “Christian.” West goes on to say that King was “a warrior for peace, a “democratic socialist” and a “spiritual warrior.” King resists easy labeling. Cleaver misjudged him when he wrote that he “turned tail” at Selma. For Cleaver, King was merely one of many heroes on a list that included Nkrumah, Robert Moses, Ho Chi Minh, W. E. B. Dubois and James Foreman.

Professor West admires King as deeply as he abhors Obama, whom he accuses of a “betrayal” of “everything” that King stood for. What he doesn’t say and that he might have said is that if it were not for Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta, there would have been no Obama in the White House. King paved the way for Barack. He might have seen Obama as a kind of turncoat, but he was too kind and too loving to denounce him. In January 2019, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I will remember King as a kind of utopian who wanted to create “the beloved community” and who realized the dangers that await movements for social change. “The postcolonial period is more difficult and precarious than the colonial struggle itself,” he wrote. Fifty years after his death, that observation is as insightful and as relevant as ever. In 1967, he noted that, “this may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Now, we are offered mankind’s last chance to choose between surviving on a planet that’s burning up or going down to destruction.

(Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.)

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