Taking Back MLK

Like so many other great progressives of the last century, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message has been co-opted to fit into the vanilla, do-nothing nature of contemporary liberalism.


There has been a fairly popular series of graphics moseying their way around the Internet lately, all comprised of a photo of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a quote of his: some variation of, “This country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.”

mlk socialism

It’s a fantastic little quote, capturing in a few words what some political activists and social commentators take entire books to diagnose. But to many of those who may still think of King as the moderate pacifist of their elementary school social studies classes, his use of radical economic terms may come as a bit of a surprise.

This morning, Thomas Sugrue of the University of Pennsylvania penned a piece in Jacobin addressing that very surprise. In it, he outlined an argument posed by historian Thomas F. Jackson in his book From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice, which portrays King as an unquestionable radical, a hopeful leader in the fight for social and economic justice.

Through a close reading of King’s work, Jackson finds deep currents of anti-imperialism running through King’s thought, going all the way back to his days as a student. He finds a consistent thread of anticapitalism in King’s speeches. And he finds that King was building alliances with the left wing of the labor movement and allying himself with activists who called for structural change in the economy.

Through Jackson’s interpretation of King’s radical focus after reading “King’s every last sermon, speech, book, article, and letter,” we can easily see that “I Have a Dream” is only half of his story. Although it may be going too far to refer to King as the new black Eugene Debs, that epithet is undoubtedly closer than comparing him to Mother Theresa or any other pacifist without a political agenda.

We can also easily see how King’s message was so hopelessly watered down over the years as to fit the ever moderating consensus agenda of America pre-neoliberals. Among many other groups, Jackson points to white liberals embracing King as a moderate leader capable of fending off the militant musings of black leaders like Malcolm X while simultaneously bringing about common-sense social change. And although King’s own words refuted that puppet role, the co-optative white culture of the 1960s swallowed the Radical King right up and regurgitated it as, to use Jackson’s own words:

  • the Commemorative King (the MLK Day King, a figurehead in the celebration of America’s farcical triumph over bigotry and hatred);
  • the Therapeutic King (the American icon, the great healer of hatred: “King’s message, bereft of its hard-hitting political content, is so anodyne that we can all support it, Republican and Democrat alike”);
  • the Conservative King (the prophet of racial equality, and thus the unwilling spokesperson of “meritocratic individualism”);
  • and the Commodified King (the marketability of history).

If we need any proof as to the validity of these interpretations, we need look no further than Twitter. USA Today kindly provided a list of the ten most tweeted Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes, and, after taking the words of Sugrue and Jackson into consideration, their vagueness is stunning. Half of the entries have to do with the nature of love, while the other half are calls to do “what is right” that are so benign, if you didn’t know who said them you could safely assume they were talking about giving your seat up to the old lady on the train. Nothing about race. Nothing about economics. Nothing political. No condemnation. No prescription. In other words, nothing uncomfortable, nothing too confrontational.

As we are in the midst of a political turning point in which radical leftism has the opportunity to shed its shell of taboo, it is crucial that we expose ideological white-washing for what it is, and that includes undoing the historical obfuscation of such noble figures as Martin Luther King, Jr.

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