Just over a decade after he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. had become the personification of the Civil Rights Movement—a safe figure for the era, one in which both the political left and right aimed to claim as their own, in turn disregarding the very ideas and principles in which King stood for in the 1960s.
Today, when we celebrate MLK Day, we tend to think of King in terms of his textbook image: the man who delivered the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington, the man who advocated for non-violent direct action in the face of racial violence and racial inequality. And while King should certainly be recognized for his skills as an orator and the progress he made during the Civil Rights Movement, this de-radicalized image that we are presented with today in many of our classrooms and communities is one which ignores his life-long progressive goals and ideas.
Many of these ideas would be considered radical even by today’s standards: his comprehensive fight for economic justice, his anti-war stance, and more specifically, his promotion of affirmative action and reparations for African-Americans.
“King’s goals were much more expansive than can be encompassed in the term ‘civil rights.’ In fact, he had begun to talk about human rights in a really robust way,” Associate Professor ofHistory Marisa Chappell said. “King recognized the connections among racism, militarism, capitalism, and really sought to organize ordinary people to challenge these interlocking systems.”
In the 1960s, King was certainly regarded as radical. He was considered dangerous by much of white America, was viewed as a threat by political parties and the government and was even the target of extensive FBI surveillance and wire tapping.
By neglecting to recognize the way in which King was treated during his fight for civil and human rights, we continue to perpetuate the de-radicalized textbook image—the version of history which is a triumphant but inaccurate narrative.
Andrew Valls, associate professor of political science and author of Rethinking Racial Justice, discussed the troubling notion of failing to acknowledge all of King’s life’s work in the modern day.
“That involves a kind of sanitizing of his actual thought and involves a lot of historical forgetting about what he stood for, what he wanted, and just how controversial he was at thetime,” Valls said.
Placing King’s textbook image on a pedestal, and advertising the holiday named in his honor as a “Day of Service,” continues to undermine the significant racial inequality and racial disparities persisting for African-Americans in the present day: mass incarceration, gentrification and the lingering impacts of redlining and other discriminatory policies, in addition to economic inequality.
In fact, according to Pew Research Center, income gaps among racial groups continue to persist, stating that in 2016, “blacks at the 90th percentile of their distribution earned 68% as much as whites at their 90th percentile, the same as 1970.”
Valls emphasized this problematic notion of a “Day of Service,” ultimately because it creates the illusion that “the way to achieve further progress on issues of race is through private, individual action,” rather than addressing the explicitly racist policies of the past with new, progressive, well-crafted policies.
The persistence of racial inequality in the United States is certainly something King would be disheartened to see if he was alive today. And furthermore, his de-radicalized image—one which has been “co-opted by conservatives who opposed all of the goals that King embodied,” as Chappell described, and one which fails to tell the entirety of his story—is perhaps some-thing he would also find troubling.
Ultimately, by failing to acknowledge the entirety of King’s beliefs, and by neglecting to address the same persistent issues of racial and social inequality that were also present in 1960s, we continue to undermine the philosophies, legacy and spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.