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Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with an African American president undoubtedly inspires the young American to envision him or herself living in a post-racial society, perhaps one where the individual is truly judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. However, despite the obvious illusion of a post-color America, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for far more than the possibility of a black president.
In trying to honor his heroic leadership at a time in American history that saw its most inspirational leaders silenced, murdered or marginalized, we have lost touch with the radical roots of Dr. King’s activism.
We have forgotten his rejection of traditional capitalism. We have forgotten his opposition to pursuing our national interests with guns and white phosphorus. We have forgotten his use of Christianity to inspire non-violent revolution rather than the “traditional family values” that we hear so much about today. We have forgotten that, precisely for these reasons, 22 Senators voted against creating a national holiday to honor Dr. King in 1983, and initially President Reagan vowed to veto any bill that proposed it.
Despite successfully desegregating school districts and public facilities, legally ensuring voting rights for African Americans, honoring Dr. King with a national holiday and even electing our first African American president, our nation has yet to come to terms with Dr. King’s radical vision for our future.
To honor him with a national holiday without honoring his faith in the power of human beings to pursue revolutionary change is to ignore the profound guidance that Dr. King still offers us almost 42 years after his assassination. It is important not to remove Dr. King from the context of the African American struggle for equality and dignity, but in honoring Dr. King I hope that we can appreciate his leadership and ideals for exactly what they were: unabashedly radical, uncomfortable for white America and in many ways still unfulfilled.
Many know that Dr. King was strongly influenced by Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violent resistance, however, how often do we speak of the radical American activists such as Bayard Rustin who profoundly influenced Dr. King? Rustin was a gay Quaker and a dedicated socialist. We seem to have forgotten that close confidants of Dr. King from Rustin to Stanely Levison and Hunter Pitts O’Dell, were all investigated by the FBI and several called to testify for the House Un-American Activities Committee for their socialist or allegedly communist ties.
In response to the FBI’s suspicion of communist involvement in the civil rights movement, Dr. King argued that “the Negro revolution is a genuine revolution, born from the same womb that produces all massive social upheavals—the womb of intolerable conditions and unendurable situations.” This is precisely how Dr. King saw himself and the struggle for racial and economic justice: Revolutionary.
It is known that Dr. King marched for civil rights, but somewhere along the line we forgot that he was a strong advocate for government compensatory programs for people of color and any disadvantaged group in order to equal the economic playing field. Dr. King called for a “multiracial army” of poor Americans to organize for a national agenda that placed the needs of the poor and working class higher than the greedy militarism that he argued dominated the minds of Congress.
Dr. King’s message remains relevant. According to the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center, in 2008 24.7 percent of blacks and 23.2 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to only 8.6 percent of whites. In Colorado, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 34 percent of black children and 26 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty, compared to only 7 percent of white children.
Dr. King’s fight for racial justice is far from over, and in an America that increasingly wants to view itself as over race, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a reminder that we still have a massive struggle before us.
Most importantly, Dr. King not only condemned the American military involvement in Vietnam, he strongly opposed any militaristic ideology that emphasized the differences of human beings in order to dehumanize them as targets that deserved to be pelted with bullets or deadly chemicals. He questioned our national propaganda demonizing Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. He questioned how we could be liberating a nation by destroying their crops and villages. He encouraged conscientious objection to military service, and in his famous Beyond Vietnam sermon at Riverside Cathedral in Harlem, demanded that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values” that would put human life before militarism.
We have yet to make this revolution happen.
For the 2010 fiscal year, the final size of the Department of Defense’s budget was a whopping $680 billion, making the U.S. military budget almost as much as the rest of the world’s defense spending combined. To sit idly by when billions are spent on weapons and not the working poor in this country is to ignore the choice, as Dr. King put it, between violent co-annihilation and non-violent coexistence. For Dr. King, this co-annihilation was not just material; it was deeply spiritual, 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.”
It is this spiritual death that Dr. King saw in the global impact of American economic and military imperialism. He urged Americans to question our government’s interference in the politics of underdeveloped nations in the name of freedom.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it would be wise to consider the traditional motto of social justice: “Think globally, act locally.” We must question and challenge our impact on the poor and working class of the world, without losing sight of the struggles for economic and racial justice in our own communities. Dr. King’s struggle for justice is real and tangible, and it is up to us to continue the fight, but that fight isn’t possible without first recognizing its radical roots.
Contact CU Independent Contributor Benjamin Birely at Benjamin.firstname.lastname@example.org.