Every year, on the third Monday of January, the world remembers the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Our remembrance of him is of a caliber usually reserved for statesmen and elected officials—he is memorialized in Washington, D.C. between the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. As one of the few Black men taught about in our history lessons, he has become a symbol of both paramount change and the erasure of the contributions of many other Black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.
Despite his towering legacy, Americans dwell on only a few aspects of King’s life. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the “I Have a Dream” speech, and his tragic assassination seem to draw the most retrospective attention. Charles M. Blow notes that, as a child, he was taught a narrow portrait of King. Once he became an adult, he learned about King’s radical beliefs, and how they were the foundation of his life’s mission. “I had been taught a reduced King,” Blow says, “smooth and polished, a one-dimensional impersonation of a person.” We do King’s legacy a disservice if we do not make an effort to remember him as the revolutionary he truly was.
From an early age, King was a radical, speaking out against not just racism, but militarism and capitalism as well. Coretta Scott King tells a story of meeting him for the first time and being surprised by his politics. “On my first date with Martin I was surprised because I had never met a black socialist before,” she said. Later, King would define his activism as an opposition to the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” It was this outspokenness that led to King being labeled as “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation” by the FBI.
His activism was predominantly informed by his deep Christian faith and love for humanity. Of course, King’s famous nonviolence is remembered well. However, according to Eric Mann, the popular portrayal of King as a “‘non-violent,’ accommodating dreamer,” is incorrect. In reality, King’s actions were strong and urgent, not conciliatory or gradual. Like Malcolm X and W.E.B. Du Bois, King was interested in revolutionary ideas and methods. Civil rights militants upset the establishment by occupying public offices, marching against armed police, and sitting at segregated lunch counters. While these projects were non-violent, King and his supporters put their lives on the line through direct action to unapologetically disrupt what they saw as an unjust system.
King’s legacy is often tied up with the end of legal discrimination, which was mostly achieved by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, his overarching project was more aspirational. He sought a complete realignment of American values, away from those “giant triplets” that were rotting away the soul of the nation. Harry Belafonte, an ally of King’s, remembers him struggling over this dilemma. “We have fought hard and long for integration…,” King told Belafonte, “But what bothers me is that I’ve come to believe that we’re integrated into a burning house.” It was not enough for Black people to be a part of America’s institutions—the institutions themselves had to be completely rethought and remade for all Americans.
Always a radical, King defied his moderate supporters and denounced the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967. King’s righteous anger permeates the speech, which lists the moral disasters of the war and illuminates how they reflect the problems in American society. American militarism, he argued, disproportionately hurts poor Americans and people of color. He also urged the country to witness the atrocity of the War from the perspective of the Vietnamese, who were denied their sovereignty and lost their homes as American bombs and bulldozers destroyed the country. He closed by proposing a “true revolution of values” in America, a revolution that would bring down the oppressive structures of racism, capitalism, and militarism in society.
This speech was an outrage for much of the liberal establishment, including the FBI, which was convinced that King was a communist agent. As part of its counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, the FBI brazenly surveilled King and sought to “neutralize” his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. FBI agents even sent King an anonymous letter in 1964, claiming to have knowledge of extramarital affairs and urging him to commit suicide. Unfortunately, this ugly episode needs to be a part of King’s legacy, as it reminds us how far established forces will go to prevent King’s vision and discontent from becoming reality.
While the challenge of bringing about justice in America seemed impossible at times, King steeled himself to face it and died in that cause. While King’s “dream” should be remembered as a testament to his idealism, the other, less tidy aspects of his life should not be washed away. His willingness to define the poisons of the American soul, his commitment to a multiracial Poor People’s Campaign, his anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and belief in direct action are all parts of his legacy. Martin Luther King Jr. Day should inspire all Americans to, in his words, “rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”