The radical King we don’t know

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a Mississippi rally in 1966.

Does America have the capacity to heed the radical Martin Luther King Jr., or must America sanitize King in order to evade and avoid his challenge?

Image: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a Mississippi rally in 1966. (© Flip Schulke/CORBIS)

© Flip Schulke/CORBIS


This essay is reprinted with permission from Cornel West’s introduction to The Radical King by Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Cornel West (Beacon Press, 2015).

The FBI transcript of a June 27, 1964, phone conversation reveals Malcolm X receiving a message from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This message supported the idea of getting the human rights declaration of the United Nations to expose the unfair, vicious treatment of black people in America. Malcolm X replied that he was eager to meet Dr. King—as soon as the next afternoon. If they had met that day and worked together, the radical King would be well known.

In a speech to staff in 1966, King explained: “There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” If he had lived and pursued this project, the radical King would be well known.

On April 4, 1968, in Memphis—the last day of his life—Martin Luther King Jr. phoned Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta with the title of his Sunday sermon: “Why America May Go to Hell.” If he had preached this sermon, the radical King would be well known.

Yet in Dr. King’s own time, he would say repeatedly, “I am nevertheless greatly saddened . . . that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.” It is no accident that just prior to King’s death, 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of his opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America. When much of the black leadership attacked or shunned him, King replied, “What you’re saying may get you a foundation grant but it won’t get you into the kingdom of truth.”

In short, Martin Luther King Jr. refused to sell his soul for a mess of pottage. He refused to silence his voice in his quest for unarmed truth and unconditional love. For King, the condition of truth was to allow suffering to speak; for him, justice was what love looks like in public. In King’s eyes, too many black leaders sacrificed the truth for access to power or reduced sacrificial love and service to selfish expediency and personal gain. This spiritual blackout among black leaders resulted in their use and abuse by the white political and economic establishment that constituted a kind of “conspiracy against the poor.” This spiritual blackout—this lack of integrity and courage—primarily revealed a deep fear, failure of nerve, and spinelessness on behalf of black leaders. They too often were sycophants, cheerleaders, or bootlickers for big monied interests, even as the boots were crushing poor and working people. In stark contrast to this cowardice, King stated to his staff, “I’d rather be dead than afraid.”

Although much of America did not know the radical King—and too few know today—the FBI and U.S. government did. They called him “the most dangerous man in America.” They knew Reverend King was a revolutionary Christian, sincere in his commitment and serious in his calling. They knew he was a product of a black prophetic tradition, full of fire in his bones, love in his heart, light in his mind, and courage in his soul. Martin Luther King Jr. was the major threat to the U.S. government and the American establishment because he dared to organize and mobilize black rage over past and present crimes against humanity targeting black folk and other oppressed people.

Any such black awakening can either yield hatred and revenge or love and justice. This is why the prophetic words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel still haunt us: “The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.” The fundamental question is: Does America have the capacity to hear and heed the radical King or must America sanitize King in order to evade and avoid his challenge?

King indeed had a dream. But it was not the American dream. King’s dream was rooted in the American Dream—it was what the quest for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness looked like for people enslaved and Jim Crowed, terrorized, traumatized, and stigmatized by American laws and American citizens. The litmus test for realizing King’s dream was neither a black face in the White House nor a black presence on Wall Street. Rather, the fulfillment of his dream was for all poor and working people to live lives of decency and dignity.

King’s dream of a more free and democratic America and world had morphed into, in his words, “a nightmare,” owing to the persistence of “racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism.” He called America a “sick society.” At one point, King cried out in despair, “I have found out that all that I have been doing in trying to correct this system in America has been in vain. I am trying to get at the roots of it to see just what ought to be done. The whole thing will have to be done away with.” He said to his dear brother Harry Belafonte days before his, King’s, death, “Are we integrating into a burning house?” He was weary of pervasive economic injustice, cultural decay, and political paralysis. He was not an American Gibbon chronicling the decline and fall of the American empire but a courageous and visionary Christian blues man, fighting with style and love in the face of the four catastrophes he identified, which are still with us today.

Militarism is an imperial catastrophe that has produced a military-industrial complex and national security state and warped the country’s priorities and stature (as with the immoral drones dropping bombs on innocent civilians). Materialism is a spiritual catastrophe, promoted by a corporate-media multiplex and a culture industry that has hardened the hearts of hard-core consumers and coarsened the consciences of would-be citizens. Clever gimmicks of mass distraction yield a cheap soulcraft of addicted and self-medicated narcissists.

Racism is a moral catastrophe, most graphically seen in the prison-industrial complex and targeted police surveillance in black and brown ghettos rendered invisible in public discourse. Arbitrary uses of the law in the name of the “war” on drugs have produced, in legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s well-known phrase, a new Jim Crow of mass incarceration. And poverty is an economic catastrophe, inseparable from the power of greedy oligarchs and avaricious plutocrats indifferent to the misery of poor children, elderly and disabled citizens, and working people.

The radical King was a warrior for peace on the domestic and global battlefields. He was a staunch anti-colonial and anti-imperial thinker and fighter. His revolutionary commitment to nonviolent resistance in America and abroad tried to put a brake on the escalating militarism running amok across the globe. As a decade-long victim of the vicious and vindictive FBI, King was a radical libertarian as well as having closeted democratic socialist leanings. His commitment to the precious rights and liberties for all was profound.

For King, dissent did not mean disloyalty—in fact, dissent was a high form of patriotism. When he said that the U.S. government was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” he was not trashing America. He was telling the painful truth about a country he loved. King was never anti-American; he was always anti-injustice in America and anywhere else. Love of truth and love of country could go hand-in-hand. Needless to say, under the policies of the National Security Agency and Obama administration, King could have been subject to detention without trial and assassination by executive decree (owing to his links to “terrorists” of his day, such as Nelson Mandela).

The radical King was a spiritual giant who tried to shatter the callousness and indifference of his fellow citizens. Following his dear friend and comrade Rabbi Heschel, King believed that indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself. And materialism, with its attendants hedonism and egotism, produces sleepwalkers bereft of compassion and zombies deficient in love. This spiritual crisis is not reducible to politics or economics. It is rooted in the relative decline of integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue, due in large part to the role of big money in American life. This coldhearted obsession with manipulation and domination drives our ecological catastrophe-in-the-making and our possible military Armageddon.

The radical King was a moral titan with profound allegiance to his roots—the black prophetic tradition and black freedom struggle. His genuine commitment to the dignity of whites, as well as to peoples of all hues, never overshadowed or downplayed his deep commitment to black people. For King, the struggle against the legacy of white supremacy was never a strategic move or tactical afterthought; rather, it was a profound existential and moral matter of great urgency. King knew that white supremacy, in various forms, was a global phenomenon. It remains shot through our hearts and minds, institutions and structures, smart phones and unwise politicians. The modes of racist domination—from barbaric slavery to bestial Jim Crow Sr. to cruel Jim Crow Jr.—are never reducible to individual prejudice or personal bias. Empire, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, and homophobia are linked in complex ways, and our struggles against them require moral consistency and systemic analyses.

The radical King was a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies. This class struggle may be visible or invisible, manifest or latent. But it rages on in a fight over resources, power, and space. In the past thirty years we have witnessed a top-down, one-sided class war against poor and working people in the name of a morally bankrupt policy of deregulating markets, lowering taxes, and cutting spending for those who are already socially neglected and economically abandoned. America’s two main political parties, each beholden to big money, offer merely alternative versions of oligarchic rule. The radical King was neither Marxist nor communist, but he did understand the role of class analysis in his focus on poor and working people. He always had a healthy suspicion of all politicians—of any color—owing to his critique of legalized bribery and normalized corruption in money-saturated American politics. He noted, “I have come to think of my role as one which operates outside the realm of partisan politics. . . . I feel I should serve as a conscience of all the parties and all of the people.” This critical attitude toward politicians was deepened when he worked to register thousands of people to elect the first black mayor in modern times, Carl Stokes, in Cleveland in 1967, yet was uninvited to join the stage for the victory celebration.

Needless to say, the rich legacy of the radical King in the age of Obama celebrates the symbolic breakthrough of a black president and keeps track of the right-wing backlash against him. Yet the bailout for banks, record profits for Wall Street, and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable rather than mortgage relief for homeowners, jobs with a living wage, and investment in education, infrastructure, and housing reveal the plutocratic domination of the Obama administration. The dream of the radical King for the first black president surely was not a Wall Street presidency, drone presidency, and surveillance presidency with a vanishing black middle class, devastated black working class, and desperate black poor people clinging to fleeting symbols and empty rhetoric. I shall never forget the first question I asked Barack Obama when he called to solicit my support: “What is the relation of your presidential policies to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.?” He replied—in hours of dialogue—that the relation was strong. And I agreed to lend critical support. After sixty-five events, from Iowa to Ohio, in 2008, I knew that most of his advisers were not part of the King legacy. And Obama’s betrayal of what the radical King stands for became undeniable.

Sadly, the damage done by Obama apologists—often for money, access, and status—is immeasurable and nearly unforgivable. For the first time in American history, black citizens are the most pro-war in American society. Black churches are among the weakest in prison ministry—even given the disproportionately high percentage of black prisoners. Black schools are under attack from profiteering enterprises. Forty percent of black children live in poverty. Aside from a few exceptions, black musicians are more and more marginal in popular culture. Black deaths, especially among young people, are out of control. In other words, the Obama apologists who hide and conceal Wall Street crimes, imperial crimes, new Jim Crow crimes, and surveillance lies in order to protect the first black president have much to account for. And a health-care bill—a bonanza for big insurance and drug companies alongside access to new consumers—falls far short of the mark.

The response of the radical King to our catastrophic moment can be put in one word: revolution—a revolution in our priorities, a reevaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life, and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.

The radical King was first and foremost a revolutionary Christian—a black Baptist minister and pastor whose intellectual genius and rhetorical power was deployed in the name of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. King understood this good news to be primarily radical love in freedom and radical freedom in love, a fallible enactment of the Beloved Community or finite embodiment of the Kingdom of God. King’s radical love can be heard in John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” or the Isley Brothers’ “Caravan of Love.” This radical love of an intensely hated people is both liberating and contagious, just as this radical freedom of a thoroughly unfree people is both emancipating and infectious.

The radical King was the most significant and effective organic intellectual in the latter half of the twentieth century whose fundamental motif was radical love. King’s radical love was Christocentric in content and black in character. Like the Christocentric language of the Black Church that produced the radical King—Jesus as the Bright and Morning Star against the backdrop of the pitch darkness of the night, as water in dry places, a companion in loneliness, a doctor to the sick, a rock in a wearied land—his Christocentrism exemplifies the intimate and dependent relationship between God and person and between God and a world-forsaken people. The black character of King’s radical love was its roots in the indescribable terror and inimitable trauma of being black in white supremacist America, during slavery, Jim Crow Sr. or Jim Crow Jr.

King’s work and witness is a kind of prophetic pneumatology in motion—a kinetic orality, passionate physicality, and combative spirituality that wedded mind to movement, soul to sustenance, and body to empowerment. Like his most worthy theological precursor, the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, King pulled from the rich insights of Western thinkers, yet he elevated the lived experiences of wounded, scarred, and bruised bodies of enslaved and Jim-Crowed black peoples to enact radical love.

King’s radical love put a premium on artistic performance and existential praxis. His sermons were performances that authorized an alternative reality to the way the world is. His living radiated a radical tenderness, subversive sweetness, and militant gentleness. He found great joy in serving others.

Like his great contemporary Dorothy Day, the Catholic saint who looked at the world through the lens of her heart, Dr. King understood radical love as a form of death—a relentless self-examination in which a fearful, hateful, egoistic self dies daily to be reborn into a courageous, loving, and sacrificial self. For both Day and King, this radical love flows from an imitation of Christ, a response to an invitation of self-surrender in order to emerge fully equipped to fight for justice in a cold and cruel world of domination and exploitation. The scandal of the Cross is precisely the unstoppable and unsuffocatable love that keeps moving in a blood-soaked history, even in our catastrophic times. There is no radical King without his commitment to radical love.

King’s revolutionary witness—embodied in anti-imperial, anti-colonial, anti-racist, and democratic socialist sentiments—was grounded in his courage to think, his courage to love, and his courage to die. Could it be that we know so little of the radical King because such courage defies our market-driven world?

This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of UU World (page 24) and is reprinted with permission from Cornel West’s introduction to The Radical King by Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Cornel West (Beacon Press, 2015). 

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