Martin Luther King is remembered by most Americans as a Civil Rights leader who opposed violent protest and fought to end segregation and legal discrimination. His national holiday was established by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and since then, most Americans have viewed MLK in a positive light. However, there are critics of those who praise King’s call to non-violence and unification, claiming that people who admire Dr. King for those reasons are “missing the big picture”. According to authors and activists such as Cornel West, Tim Wise, and Michelle Alexander, King was “profoundly radical” in his vision for America. His support for Social Democratic policy, opposition to the Vietnam War, and his apparent support for reparations are evidence enough to support this claim, right? Except there’s one major issue: even if all these things were true, they hardly serve as damning evidence of a “radical” Martin Luther King Jr..
To begin with, let’s analyze King’s views on the war in Vietnam, which were far from “radical” by any means, particularly in today’s context. Toward the end of his life, King was outspoken about his anti-war sentiments and the urgency for America to pull out of the Vietnam conflict. Though this is remembered as a “fringe” idea due to the violent political and governmental backlash that occurred against the anti-war crowd, it is important to note that radical opinions often lack support of the masses. However, if we look at the facts, this simply wasn’t the case with the Vietnam War. In 1970, only two years after King’s assassination, a Gallup poll measured support for withdrawal from Vietnam vs escalation of the Vietnam War. Over half of those asked preferred withdrawal and by 1971 that number had risen to 61%. King’s views on the war were far from fringe or radical—the majority of Americans not too long after his death agreed with him.
There were also Dr. King’s views on reparations and affirmative action which proved to be quite nuanced and even fairly left-leaning, but by no stretch of the imagination were they as radical as many on the Left claim them to be. Despite assertions that he strongly advocated for affirmative action policy in the most influential parts of his life, it is important to remember that affirmative action as we know it today did not exist while King was alive. Affirmative Action policy in the form of timetables (and, while technically illegal, in the form of quotas) did not arrive until the Nixon administration established new meaning to the phrase in 1968 with Executive Order 11478. Prior to 1968, the interpretation of Affirmative Action under the Johnson administration simply meant equal protection under the law with regards to race and employment. Of course, one should not take this to believe that King did not support government assistance in repairing black communities devastated by institutional racism. Such views are rightly bought up later when discussing King’s views on political economy.
Dr. King’s support for left-leaning economic policy is perhaps the strongest argument one can make when claiming that he was politically radical. However, even this argument only goes so far. As stated earlier, Dr. King, at least to some extent, believed the government should help repair black communities after years of legal segregation and discrimination. However, there are several things to take into account when looking at this. First, King’s endorsement of governmental funding for black communities, while radical in the 1960’s and somewhat radical today, was never rooted in the idea of reparations exclusively for black citizens. Though many defenders of this claim cite a 1968 speech by King in which he states, “When we come to Washington… we’re coming to get our check,” an important detail from the speech is often missing from the citation: that it was made as part of the Poor People’s Campaign at a time when Dr. King was fighting for reparations and economic reform for all poor peoples, not merely historically marginalized black communities. More important to King was Social Democratic policy such as annual income, access to healthcare, and yes, even redistribution of wealth.
However, that leads into an additional point about King’s economic vision: Martin Luther King Jr., while adamant about Social Democracy, was highly critical of Marxism and Communism. In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, King utilizes an entire chapter to go into detail about the moral short-comings of Communism and the failures of Marxism. He explains:
“Communism, avowedly secularistic and materialistic, has no place for God. This I could never accept,… I strongly disagreed with Communism’s ethical relativism… there are no fixed, immutable principles; consequently, almost anything—force, violence, murder, lying—is a justifiable means to the ‘millennial’ end.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Additionally, King’s general economic ideas can be summarized by this quote from later in the chapter:
“Although modern American capitalism had greatly reduced the gap through social reforms, there was still need for a better redistribution of wealth.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
The quote speaks for itself. King was left-leaning on economic policy for sure, but hardly a “radical” by the Alinskian definition of the term.
The final argument that tends to be bought up in the discussion of the “radical” King is his apparent distaste for white moderates. Many of the quotes and citations made to back up this claim completely misunderstand King’s definition of a “white moderate.” Within the contexts of his own words, King is antagonizing white folks who are aware of the sentiments of black folks and agree with their policies, but are hesitant to assist them due to prioritization of social order over justice. All one has to do is read King’s letters from Birmingham jail to get a better understanding of the context:
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate… who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’…” – Martin Luther King Jr.
To King, the white moderate is the person who knows how to fix the problem but refuses to help. To be critical of this mentality is hardly a radical idea—ANY person who advocates for justice but encounters those who refuse to aid their cause in spite of common agreement would have a right to be angry and confused by such a mentality. One does not need to hold far-left opinions on the state of racism in America to sympathize with Dr. King’s frustration.
It is essential that we as Americans face the facts when discussing topics of importance in our society. In keeping with the integrity of this discussion, one should not deny Martin Luther King Jr.’s left-leaning economic tendencies. On the other hand, the act of weaponizing King’s progressive ideas in order to claim ownership over his legacy is nothing more than a failure by the Left to truly understand what the man actually stood for. King’s legacy is one that transcends political boundaries due to its universality. Every year, the “I Have a Dream” speech is quoted by millions of Americans of every race and class because the underlying truth of King’s message of non-violence and desegregation remains just as true today as it was in the 1960s. Only when America is able to have an honest conversation about King without labeling him as a Leftist or a Right-winger will we be able to obtain a well-defined, detailed understanding of what Martin Luther King Jr. truly represented and what the legacy of non-violence means for Americans today. #