The Radical Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our culture likes to bathe in “I have a dream,” and ignore the radical side of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. leading a march for a living wage in support of black workers at the Scripto Pen Company, Atlanta, 1964. (1964. AFL-CIO Still Images, Photographic Prints Collection, University of Maryland)

Much of what we think of Martin Luther King, Jr. today has been filtered through a lens that minimizes his work as a social activist. We see Martin Luther King, Jr. as a crusader against segregation, and as someone who spoke amazing words about the America we think exists today. We ignore the other causes for which he fought, and ultimately, died.

The Civil Rights Movement was not just about segregation. It was about police brutality. It was about white supremacy. It was about unions. It was about fair housing. It was about poverty.

Our textbooks don’t get into the fact that the FBI sought for years to bring him down. He was accused of being a communist. He was a radical. White leaders, both political and religious, accused him of wanting too much and too fast.

Pamphlet accusing Martin Lutehr King, Jr of being at a “communist training camp,” c. 1963 (International Center of Photography)

Even Harry S Truman called Martin Luther King a “troublemaker.” (1)

Conspiracy theories that Martin Luther King, Jr. ran communist indoctrination camps were all over, and were espoused even by members of Congress. These conspiracies adorned billboards across the country, and pamphlets distributed on street corners.

J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with King and did all he could to bring him down. He publicly called King a “liar.” King’s phones were wiretapped. He tried blackmailing King. He equated King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a “Black Nationalist Hate Group.” (2)

Boston, 1965 (AP Photo)

By the time of his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the least popular people in the United States, with a disapproval rating of nearly 75%. (3)

In 1983, when the bill to create a holiday in his name was introduced in Congress, Senator Helms, a Republican from North Carolina led a filibuster against the proposal, saying that King was not important enough for a holiday. He also said that King was a communist. Initially, Ronald Reagan was against the bill. He signed it due to the fact that there was a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress.

Although the law went into effect in 1986, not all states agreed to the holiday. Famously (or, I should say, infamously), Arizona did not accept Martin Luther King, Jr. Day until a referendum in 1992. Some Southern states paired Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with a day to also celebrate the birthday of Robert E. Lee. South Carolina did not accept the day until the year 2000. (4)

Yes, South Carolina did not make this day a holiday until 2000.

And Martin Luther King, Jr. did not get a memorial on the National Mall until 2011.

And all of this talk about Confederate statues being vandalized and taken down over the last year fails to recognize that Martin Luther King, Jr. statues and memorials were vandalized all across the country, too. Some of them were doused with white paint, some defaced with “All Lives Matter,” some broken and toppled. And in Colorado, a building dedicated to the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. had “KKK” scrawled across the entrance.

Various images showing vandalism of Martin Luther King, Jr. statues and memorials, 2020.

Over the last year, Martin Luther King, Jr. statues and memorials experienced vandalism in Colorado, Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Arizona, Nevada, California, Georgia, Florida, to name a few. (5)

Today is a day that is not just about Martin Luther King, Jr. It is about reflection. It is about social justice.

Make no mistake: the Civil Rights Movement and, in particular, the causes that Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for in his later years were very much aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement of today. And if you don’t see that, you don’t understand history.

King was more than “I Have a Dream.” In fact, near the end of his life, that ideal was not what he was proclaiming anymore. He was increasingly speaking out about police brutality. He became one of the most outspoken critics of Vietnam. He led boycotts in support of workers who were trying to unionize. He led the “Poor Peoples’ Campaign.” He spoke of universal healthcare.(6)

In 1964, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he walked picket lines with black workers wanting to unionize at a pen factory in Atlanta and led calls for boycotts against the Scripto pen company. This marked the beginning of King’s focus on labor and economic equality that would persist after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed.

Any attempt to make Martin Luther King, Jr. as only a purveyor of peace and non-violence negates the entire history of the Civil Rights Movement and the man himself. He may have proclaimed, “I have a dream,” but he also said:

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.” (7)

Today, no doubt, we will be seeing many people quoting “I Have a Dream.” That is the Martin Luther King, Jr. that is comfortable with white people. That is the Martin Luther King, Jr. who lives in our textbooks.

And he was someone who was keenly aware of what parts of his message were being accepted by white America. “These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races,” he said. “Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook.” (8)

It is 2021. We need to reflect and recognize that the real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a radical, who died at the age of 39 fighting for social justice that has not yet been realized.

And that won’t happen until we come to full terms with our history.

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  1. Harry S Truman “ used racial slurs, told racist jokes, opposed sit-ins and intermarriage and called Dr. Martin Luther King a troublemaker. Whether he would act as President as he felt in private was not the question. It was assumed he would follow the lead of most other politicians of that time period and not show sympathy for African Americans’ goals for equal treatment.” https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/education/presidential-inquiries/harry-s-truman-and-civil-rights
  2. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/federal-bureau-investigation-fbi
  3. https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/04/04/martin-luther-king-jr-50-years-assassination-donald-trump-disapproval-column/482242002/
  4. https://www.history.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr-day-controversial-origins-of-the-holiday
  5. A simple search on Google for “Martin Luther King Vandalism” brings up many articles from across the country regarding the vandalism of statues over the last year. https://www.google.com/search?q=martin+luther+king+vandalism
  6. King stated in 1966 in a speech to healthcare workers in Chicago, “Of all the inequalities that exist, the injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman.” https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-fight-for-health-care-is-really-all-about-civil-rights/531855/
  7. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community” 1967 https://www.google.com/books/edition/Where_Do_We_Go_from_Here/ka4TcURYXy4C?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=are+not+putting+in+a+similar+mass+effort+to+reeducate+themselves+out+of+their+racial+ignorance&pg=PT23&printsec=frontcover
  8. Ibid. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Where_Do_We_Go_from_Here/ka4TcURYXy4C?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=Loose%20and%20easy%20language%20about%20equality,%20resonant%20resolutions%20about%20brotherhood%20fall%20pleasantly%20on%20the%20ear,%20but%20for%20the%20Negro%20there%20is%20a%20credibility%20gap%20he%20cannot%20overlook

Educator. Historian. Filmmaker. http://www.bellbookcamera.com

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