The Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday in 2017 finds America in intensifying unrest on race-related matters. Accompanying that unrest, functioning as both its fuel and its exhaust, is an emergent radical narrative whereby significant numbers of Americans, occupying the highest and the lowest strata of society, are persuaded that 50 years after King’s death America remains a racial tyranny.
The regime of Bull Connor and the like is neither forgotten nor gone, in this telling, but succeeded by a hypertrophic law-enforcement apparatus that still operates as a brutal anti-black conspiracy. The notion of meaningful progress in race relations is merely an idle fancy of “Dreamers,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates calls them, dissipating under scrutiny by the wakeful and rational. The old Jim Crow regime has given way only to a new one.
“The more things change,” says Michelle Alexander in a canonical text of this radical narrative, “The New Jim Crow,” “the more they remain the same.”
This view of America, prevalent for some time on many campuses and lately strengthening its hold on the broader public mind through the influence of best-selling authors such as Alexander and Coates, carries clear implications for our observance of the King holiday.
Remembering the ‘Wrong’ King Is Racism?
To those persuaded thus, Americans’ nearly universal admiration for King gives cause more for indignation than for celebration. The mainstream image of King—as the man who redeemed America by his vision of a nation undivided by color, and of equal rights under law—is at best a product of forgetfulness, perhaps of self-deception, and at worst a cynical misappropriation.
In either case, this implies that commemorating King in this mainstream way is itself racism. By memorializing a comforting, no longer challenging King, so runs the argument, the mainstream view reinforces an unjust racial order.
From this it follows that the King holiday must be observed, if at all, only as an occasion for national self-reproach. It should venerate not the mainstream King but a radical King, an angry, prophetic King who grew deeply alienated from his country as he came to believe it irredeemable short of a thoroughgoing transformation of its moral and political order.
As King acolyte Cornel West writes: “The response of the radical King to our catastrophic moment can be put in one word: revolution.” The mainstream nation pleases itself to remember the King of 1963, but the authentic King it needs to remember, in this view, is King as he was at the end, in the fateful year 1968.
This challenging view of King and his legacy contains a substantial portion of truth. It contains, however, only a portion of the truth, and represents King by the least compelling and successful elements of his thinking and activism.
The Depth of the Radical King
There was indeed a radical King. Although reluctant to publicize it, he consistently opposed free-enterprise capitalism and was sympathetic to socialism. He found President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty insufficiently ambitious, so called for “a real war on poverty” consisting in “a massive, new national program.”
In his last years, feeling pressured by widespread urban rioting and the rise of the Black Power faction, and frustrated by mainstream America’s resistance to his later programmatic demands, King decried the depth and ubiquity of American racism and adopted the rhetoric of total revolution. America “must undergo a radical revolution of values,” he urged, corresponding to “a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.”
The radical King was not, however, the whole of King. If the mainstream view suffers from a measure of forgetfulness or partiality, so, too, does the radical view, which elides very important counterbalancing elements of King’s appeal.
We should certainly not forget the King of the fevered late 1960s, but we should remember him in proper proportion. Alongside the democratic-socialist, apocalyptic revolutionary, we should remember the King whose thinking accords with America’s mainstream, classical liberal tradition, the King who could rightly declare that his was “a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.”
Martin Luther King Jr., the Social Conservative
His socialist sympathies and radical zeal notwithstanding, King held a variety of positions that, though reflecting the common sense of his day, would align him generally with today’s social conservatism. He maintained that to achieve its proper ends, militancy must conjoin with moderation. He insisted on careful empirical study and negotiation as preconditions of protest. He maintained that the disadvantaged must “work on two fronts” by directing their energies toward self-improvement as well as protest.
He taught that with a new era of rights come new responsibilities: “We must prepare ourselves in every field of human endeavor,” and “we must constantly stimulate our youth … to achieve excellence.” He affirmed that “the family constitutes the basic unit of the nation” and decried (in 1955!) “the tragic disintegration of the modern family.” He criticized the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare program for its family-dissolving effects.
Finally, above all such political considerations, he implored us to love and forgive, and to begin that effort with the recognition, born of charity and realism, that “there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”
King’s thinking was fraught with tensions, and those tensions persisted, unresolved, to the end of his hectic, criminally shortened life. If we also cannot resolve them, then if we would settle the issue we must judge which view represents not the whole but the best of King’s thought and action.
Those who incline toward the radical view should then consider that to adopt that view would mean to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. by discounting much of has rendered his appeal so powerfully affecting for so many Americans. It would mean fixing him in opposition to the country he gave his life to reform. Such a course would be not only needless but profoundly unwise.