As we remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King today, Zaid Jilani of The Intercept has written a fine piece that reminds us that Dr. Kings legacy is deeply rooted in dissidence against the state. He warns of the whitewashing of King’s legacy, reminding us
King was not just a fighter for racial justice, he also fought for economic justice and against war. And as a result, he spent the last years of his life, before being assassinated in 1968, clashing not just with reactionary Southern segregationists, but with the Democratic Party’s elite and other civil rights leaders, who viewed his turn against the Vietnam War and the American economic system as dangerous and radical.
The “Santa Myth” Ain’t Just for Christmas
He goes on to speak against the Santa-fication of MLK, a term originally coined by Dr. Cornell West which refers to attempts to “erroneously compartmentalize the Civil Rights leader as a sort of a jolly and jelly-soft character, instead of the fearless warrior for righteousness that he was.” He goes on to lambaste the FBI in particular and the establishment forces generally for being hostile enemies of Dr. King.
He lays out a passionate defense of King’s vision of positivity, and condemnation of that visions usurping by the corporate establishment:
If we want to honor the legacy of Dr. King, then we must begin by learning how to love people. … That’s why people didn’t want to hang with Martin Luther King too long. He wasn’t talking about your career — but what your calling is. He wasn’t interested in talking about all of your degrees and your possessions — but what your depth of love for others is.
Far From Passive
Dr. King was a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam, and famously called the United States government “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He was also highly critical of the injustices of American capitalism. From The Intercept:
He denounced napalm bombings and the propping up of a puppet government in South Vietnam. He also called for a total re-examination of U.S. foreign policy, questioning capitalist exploitation of the developing world.
Here is his speech on the Vietnam war in his own words:
The article notes the outrage in the establishment media that King would not play ball, and cites that a total of 168 newspapers nationwide denounced his opposition of the war.
The Seeds of Dissent
The article notes how King was beginning to undertake radical measures, outside the established channels, and beginning to work directly with the people. This was a big problem for many Washington D.C. elites.
In 1968, he launched the Poor People’s Campaign, aimed at providing good jobs, housing, and a decent standard of living to all Americans. Decades before American protesters took to the streets of New York City and other locales to “occupy” space to protest inequality, King proposed a massive tent encampment in Washington, D.C., to demand action on poverty.
Dr. King was assasinated before being able to carry this vision out.
Honoring the Man
It goes without saying that Dr. King’s contributions to civil rights and racial equality are major accomplishments in our collective history, which is why he holds such a revered place in our society. Not being of African-American descent prevents me from fully appreciating the scope of his vision, but upon viewing this speech, I am still as moved by his words as ever.
But it is also important not to allow for his legacy to be co-opted into a feel good, clean message. MLK made our country uncomfortable. He made us ask tough questions, and ultimately won over the populace with his message of love. But the message of love should not overshadow the spirit of dissent which he embodied. Take it with a grain of salt when you hear a politician recite his speeeches today, and remember that Dr. King the man and the legacy will always stand by the oppressed, in whatever forms those may take.