The revolutionary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been slain twice: First, by an assassin’s bullet fifty years ago, and a second time, by the political, economic, and cultural elites of our time. They have reduced his radical teachings to gauzy notions of justice and equality, seeking to soothe their guilty consciences and hope the rest of us don’t look too closely.
The sanitized King. You gaze up at the granite walls of the King monument in our nation’s Capitol, reading all sixteen stirring King quotations selected by the monument-builders, and you will not encounter the word “racism.” Not one single time.
Jeanne Theoharis has thoroughly documented this appropriation and distortion of King’s life and words in her new book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.
It’s time to reclaim the legacy of Dr. King, in all its complexities, with all of the contradictions of this amazing, bold, visionary, evolving—and flawed—modern-day prophet.
No, not the feel-good King of “I Have a Dream” fame standing at the Lincoln Memorial. Rather, the King who called out the hypocritical clergy for claiming to support the movement while criticizing the impatience of civil rights activists. The King who defiantly called America a sick nation. The King who was unafraid to name the racism of the north, as well as the south. The King who spoke about the intertwined triplets of evil—racism, economic oppression, and militarism.
And even more so: The King—the dangerous King, the deeply unpopular King—who at the end of his life recognized that we needed revolution, not mere reform. Eleven months before he was shot down, he said:
“We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, . . . an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society . . .We have been in a reform movement… (But) after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution . . .We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power . . . This means a revolution of values and other things . . . We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together. And you really can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the others . . . The whole structure of American life must be changed . . .”
The words of King the revolutionary were true fifty years ago, and they are even more compelling in today’s dangerous and unstable world. That is the King legacy we must uphold and preserve—through our words, and even more importantly, through our actions.
About the Author
Jonathan Rosenblum has been a labor organizer for more than thirty years, playing key roles including SeaTac Airport campaign director. His writing has been featured in Tikkun, In These Times, and Yes! Magazine. He is the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement. He lives in Seattle, WA. Follow him on Twitter at @ and visit his website.