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Aaron Regunberg: MLK was Cooler than You Thought He Was

Friday, January 06, 2012


In a little over a week our country will commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.. And with MLK Day just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about King’s legacy, and the ways most of us are taught to think about his work. A few days ago I was waiting in a library and happened to pick up one of those “Biographies of Famous Americans” books—the short ones they make for children that have lots of pictures and size 20 font—about the life and times of King. Flipping through the pages, I was surprised to see that the book skipped directly from describing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to telling the story of his death. It was as if MLK had stepped into a black hole in 1963 and not emerged until 1968 for his assassination.

I wouldn’t be so disturbed by this faulty description of King’s life if it didn’t seem to be so pervasive. After putting that children’s book down, it dawned on me that this story is actually the dominant one that we tell in America. Think about it. How often does our society—our history textbooks, our teachers, our media—talk about King’s work, his struggles, and the issues he fought for during the five years between his unifying speech on the National Mall and his tragic murder in Memphis? In my experience, the answer is almost never.

Too Threatening

And here’s the reason: during that period, King became too threatening to the traditional power structure in this country. While the pre-1963 campaigns King took part in were certainly important battles, issues like bus desegregation never posed a real danger to the economic and political systems used in the United States to exploit some Americans and advantage others, and so King did not represent such a severe menace to an unjust status quo. But the truth is that during the years leading up to April 4, 1968—the years that we never hear about in children’s biographies and other dominant narratives—King was busy addressing the more systemic obstacles his people faced.

He became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, condemning America for being “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and warning that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He helped demonstrate to the world that racism was a national rather than a regional problem in America when he moved to Chicago, where his organizing efforts to fight housing segregation were met with far more institutional hatred, violence, and opposition in the North than they ever had been in the South.

But most threatening of all—and therefore least talked about today—was King’s growing focus on issues of economic justice. How often, for example, do we include in our MLK praise that he was a devoted supporter of the rights of workers to unionize? My little children’s book didn’t reference this, and it certainly didn’t mention that on the day King was murdered he was rallying for Memphis public works employees who were on strike for higher wages and better treatment (something that politicians today—Republicans and Democrats alike—are trying to make illegal with anti-union legislation).In a similar vein, we do not teach students that King’s last major effort before he was killed was to organize—along with many other civil rights leaders—a Poor People’s Campaign dedicated to bringing black and white workers together to demand an economic bill of rights that would guarantee affordable housing, full employment, and a living wage?

Not That Radical

And when have we ever acknowledged King’s belief in the need for fundamental structural changes to the nation’s economic and political system? As he said, “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplaces. But one day we must come to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Pretty radical stuff, right? The truth is, King believed deeply in redistribution and had strong misgivings about America’s capitalist order. In his words, “There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” Or, in an articulation I find even more powerful, “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.”

Needless to say, these are not the kinds of issues that most mainstream politicians will be bringing up on the 16th of this month when they give their commemorative speeches in churches and memorials across the country. So why has there been such a concerted effort to skip over the entirety of King’s later years, despite the logical absurdities (like a book that spends 8 pages on the period from 1955 to 1963, and then skips directly to 1968) that such historical inaccuracies must produce?

Because if we told the truth about King, maybe we’d have to admit that these “radical” positions he took before his assassination weren’t so radical after all.

We’ve lionized MLK in America—we’ve made it a pretty clear on a cultural level that he was on the side of justice and the issues he fought for were right. If we were to admit, then, that the goals he fought for included unionization, demilitarization, economic justice and socialistic redistribution, then maybe we’d have to recognize the righteousness of those issues. And all of the conservative leaders who will deliver their valorizations of King next week would have to admit which side of justice they truly are on.


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