Reviving the Radical King

January 14, 2022 by

“Forget the dream, he called for a revolution.” An MLK Day reading list on how his radicalism was erased.

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at an AFL-CIO event. Image: Kheel Center, Cornell University Library.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a national hero. Canonization in the United States, however, often encourages conservatism. To Americans who have grown up celebrating his birthday every January, King is often depicted solely as a champion of unity, rather than the radical organizer, anti-war protestor, and critic of capitalism that he actually was.

This is hardly surprising when each year around this weekend, King’s “least controversial words are quoted and contorted to suit every political whim” as Simon Waxman remarks. Indeed, as Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer made clear in their 2017 essay, Reagan used the very founding of MLK day to undermine racial justice. “The day was legislated as part of a strategy to defang King of his most radical qualities while coopting him into the ideology of colorblindness,” they write.

“We all love him now that the worms got his body. But when he was speaking the truth, he was radically unsettling folk.”

In fact, King was so radical that 72 percent of Americans and 50 percent of Black Americans disapproved of him at the time of his murder. “We all love him now that the worms got his body,” Cornel West commented in a 2018 conversation. “But when he was speaking the truth, he was radically unsettling folk. And he was willing to be unpopular precisely because he loved the people so.”

But others were receptive to King’s message, especially the Institute of the Black World, which worked hard to foreground King’s radicalism. As Andrew J. Douglas and Jared Loggins make clear in a 2021 essay, there is much to learn from the IBW’s commitment to the critique of racial capitalism, particularly when it comes to present debates about Black scholarship in universities.

When talking about King’s radicalism, it is impossible to ignore his stance on the Vietnam War. Not only did he fervently oppose the War, he declared “his hostility to U.S. militarism in all its forms,” as Aziz Rana writes, “asserting that such hostility was integral to his account of Black freedom.” Unfortunately, as Christian G. Appy makes clear in his essay “Exceptional Victims,” sidelining this critique “was the price of King’s admission into the U.S. pantheon of heroes.”

With all this in mind, today’s reading list offers critical engagement in place of canonization. From civil disobedience to nuclear disarmament to full employment, the essays below recover—and scrutinize—the profoundly radical nature of King’s political, moral, and religious thought.