Best we get comfortable with King the radical, too

By Robert Jensen

Published in Houston Chronicle · January, 2001

[This article appeared in the Houston Chronicle, January 14, 2001, p. 5-C.]

Martin Luther King Jr. has become America’s all-purpose icon for racial harmony.

People who once branded King a threat to the nation will march today in MLK Day parades. Cities around the country — even places where King battled segregation — name streets after him and put up statues. People of all colors invoke his name, legacy and memory in support of racial justice.

There’s no doubt that this signals an improvement in race relations. But to make King a symbol acceptable to most everyone, we have stripped him of the depth and passion of his critique of white America and its institutions. We conveniently have ignored the radical nature of King’s analysis, and in doing so we have lost an opportunity to see ourselves more clearly.

Michael Eric Dyson’s important book, I May Not Get There with You, reminds us that toward the end of his life, King underwent a dramatic transformation from liberal reformer to radical who believed “a reconstruction of the entire society” was necessary in the United States. But today, King gets used as “a convenient political football by conservatives and liberals who attempt to ultimately undermine his most radical threat to the status quo,” according to Dyson.

If King were alive today, it is difficult to imagine him participating in the triumphalism and jingoism that is so common, especially around questions of the “victory” of the United States in economic and foreign policy. I suspect King would offer a different analysis. Consider this statement from a 1967 speech:

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Our political “leaders” today preach that “free” markets and corporate capitalism can bring prosperity to all and that U.S. “humanitarian” instincts can be a force for peace. King preached a different analysis of the effects of our economic system and foreign policy.

The “glaring contrast of poverty and wealth” that King warned about in 1967 has grown steadily wider. Around the world, people in grassroots struggles are resisting the corporate globalization that pushes more people into poverty and hastens the destruction of natural resources. Resistance to various U.S.-dominated trade regimens goes on daily around the world, usually under the radar of mainstream news media. My guess is that King would be part of that resistance.

Today the United States is still “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” just as King asserted in 1967. Sometimes that violence is through direct military assaults, such as the Bush administration’s illegal and deadly invasion of Panama in 1989 or the Clinton administration’s equally illegal and counterproductive bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. Sometimes we just provide the weapons and money, such as the ongoing attacks in Colombia being paid for by the United States under the cover of a phony drug war. My guess is that King would oppose such violence.

Of course if King were alive today, no one can know for sure what specific policy positions he would take. But we can remember the values that energized and motivated him and the movements of which he was a part, and we can apply those principles.

As the incoming Bush administration talks of letting defense contractors line their pockets with billions more public dollars for an unworkable and unnecessary missile-defense shield, we might remember King’s assertion that a nation which spends “more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

As our unsustainable affluence and orgy of consumption continue to fuel economic and energy policies that impoverish others around the world and threaten the very existence of the planet, we might remember that King called for “a radical revolution of values” in the United States, a “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”

On this MLK Day, many people will feel comfortable talking about King’s dream of a world where the color of our skin doesn’t matter. But fewer will be so comfortable talking about his analysis of power and call to “move beyond the prophesying of a smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent.”

On this MLK Day we should remember that King said our country was on “the wrong side of a world revolution” of oppressed peoples.

On this MLK Day, we should ask: How long can we ignore King’s radical analysis and still pretend to honor him?