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Date: Wed, 10 Feb 1999 09:07:52 -0800 (PST)
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Subject: [BRC-NEWS] INTHESETIMES: Martin Luther King's Radical Legacy
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Martin Luther King's Radical Legacy

By John C. McMillian, In These Times, 10 February 1999

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that "the dignity ... of an iceberg is due to only one eighth of it being above water," while the rest temains submerged, unavailable to the naked eye. Something of the same might be said for Martin Luther King Jr. Though there are a number of reasons why we should all be grateful for the federal holiday each January honoring the birth of King, we should also recognize that this event helps to promote a shallow understanding of his true intellectual legacy, leading to a misconstrued image of King that he scarcely could have endorsed himself.

The scores of politicians who spoke on Jan. 18 about the pressing need to fulfill King's "Dream," for example, were generally endorsing a simplified, static portrait of King. Meanwhile, we have been bombarded with a steady stream of television commercials, advertisements and newspaper articles that imply King was merely a liberal reformer, whose sole preoccupation was civil rights. Where was the discussion of King's plans to transform the structures of power and privilege in society? Who remembered King's call for a "radical revolution" of American values? As historian Vincent Harding has remarked, "It appears as if the price for the first national holiday honoring a black man is the development of a massive case of national amnesia."

Even before the advent of his public career, King pondered fundamental economic changes in American society. "I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic," a 23-year-old King wrote in a 1952 letter to Coretta Scott. If most Americans don't know this, the federal govemment certainly did. Because of his alleged ties to Communism, the FBI launched an extended campaign to smear King, tapping his phones, sending him threatening mail and trying to discredit him among journalists and potential donors and supporters. Following King's famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington, FBI Assistant Director Louis Sullivan charged that King had become (in a curious pair of adjectives), "The most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country."

We further need to be reminded that King demanded a total restructuring of our foreign policies, and-unlike Jesse Jackson and many other "leftists" of our era-he would have had nothing but scorn for President Clinton's criminal bombings of Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, King began speaking out against U.S. militarism as early as 1965. Most symptomatic of this, of course, was the "nightmarish conflict" in Vietnam, which he said was "one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world."

In the last years of his life, King also began to focus greater attention on entrenched patterns of exploitation. In these terms, integration did not simply mean mixed lunch counters or diverse neighborhoods, but rather a meaningful sharing of power and responsibility in all aspects of society. Though it is true that King pined for a nation where people would be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," few things are more deliberately cynical than the conjecture of conservatives- from Ward Connerly to David Horowitz-who claim that King would have opposed present-day affirmative action programs. In fact, the opposite is true. In his 1964 book, Why We Can't Wait, King argued that "among the vital jobs to be done, the nation ... must incorporate into its planning some compensatory consideration for the handicaps [the Negro] has inherited from the past." Elsewhere, he cited both the federal Gl Bill and India's program of "preferences" for the "untouchables" as worthy efforts to make up for disadvantages that certain groups had faced.

King also spoke publicly against "systemic rather than superficial flaws" in our economic system, questioning the basic tenets of capitalism and calling for full employment, national health care and a guaranteed annual wage. As a means to these ends, he envisioned a massive escalation of nonviolent civil disobedience. Whereas much of his early work in the South simply sought a recognition of general principles mirrored in the Constitution, King planned for subsequent campaigns to be waged in confrontation with the federal government. Nonviolence, he argued, "must be adapted to urban conditions and urban moods.... There must be more than a statement to the larger society, a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point."

But above all, King called for a revolutionary re-examination of America's character: a point that was lost on virtually all of the joumalists and politicians who commemorated King this yeat Obviously, we should continue to honor King's greatness on the third Monday of each January. But in the future, we need to demand that these celebrations look beyond the popular, sanitized images of King that are spooned out to us annually. As Stanford historian Clayborne Carson has pointed out, "The historical King was far too interesting to be encased in simple, didactic legends designed to offend no one."

John C. McMillian is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at Columbia University. He has interned at the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University.

(c) 1999 In These Times

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