I didn’t comment on yesterday’s 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination for a number of reasons, but mostly because I wanted some time to digest some of the arguments being made about the date’s significance. Undoubtedly the most important of these arguments is Kai Wright’s, asserting King’s radicalism against those who would, as Andrew Golis says, turn King into a kind of inoffensive Santa Claus figure. The core of Wright’s argument is that King’s critique of 1960s America was not limited to a denunciation of segregation, but was much more systemic, encompassing critiques of militarism and economic oppression:
We’ve all got reason to avoid the uncomfortable truths King shoved in the nation’s face. It’s a lot easier for African Americans to pine for his leadership than it is to accept our own responsibility for creating the radicalized community he urged upon us. And it’s more comfortable for white America to reduce King’s goals to an idyllic meeting of little black boys and little white girls than it is to consider his analysis of how white supremacy keeps that from becoming reality.
Take, for instance, his point that segregation’s purpose wasn’t just to keep blacks out in the streets but to keep poor whites from taking to them and demanding economic justice. There’s a concept that’s not likely to come up in, say, the speech John McCain was rumored to be planning for today. “The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” King lectured from the Alabama Capitol steps, following the 1965 march on Selma. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.”
It’s thoughts like those that made him decidedly less popular at the time of his death than today. The bloom started to wear off King’s media rose when he turned his attention to Northern racism. The central defense Southern segregationists offered when thrust on the national stage was that their Jim Crow was no more of a brute than the North’s. King agreed, and in announcing his organization’s move into Chicago, he called the North’s urban ghettos “a system of internal colonialism not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium.” And he named names, pointing to racist unions as one of a dozen institutions conspiring to strip-mine black communities. So much for “inspirational.” But then, like now, nobody wanted to hear such talk — only the black press paid any attention.
Later, when a white mob hurled bricks and cherry bombs at marchers in Chicago, King told reporters that the scene outdid anything below the Mason-Dixon Line. “I have never in my life seen such hate,” biographer Taylor Branch quotes him as saying. “Not in Mississippi or Alabama.” Today, we hear little about the ideas that experience provoked for King: His deathbed blueprint for changing America’s caste systems included a three-pronged attack on racism, poverty, and war.
This is all undoubtedly true, and our forgetfulness of this part of King’s legacy is due in no small part to his premature end. If he hadn’t been killed when he was, the Poor People’s Campaign might have gotten of the ground. If he hadn’t been killed when he was, perhaps he would have become a leader in the anti-war movement. But he was killed in 1968, and in 1968 his legacy was Montgomery. His legacy was Birmingham. His legacy was Selma. His legacy was the March on Washington. His greatest accomplishments at the time of his death were in the struggle for racial equality. Wright’s absolutely correct that his vision stretched beyond this. But I don’t think it’s such a tragedy that he is remembered for his most effective and enduring actions. The real tragedy was that he didn’t have time to accomplish more.
Viewed strictly through a racial lens, the notion of King as a moderate, not radical, leader who’s broadly acceptable to whites becomes much easier to understand. With competition like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmicheal, and by the time of his death Black Panthers like H. Rap Brown, Bobby Seale, and Huey P. Newton, he was easily the least violent and militant of the bunch. When cities from Harlem to Watts, Cleveland to Detroit, Newark to Plainfield were in the midst of violent insurrection on the part of blacks resisting racial oppression, it’s understandable that whites would find a pacifist like King more appealing. But Wright’s right to assert that King was a radical; he was, within his own movement. He was black in a country where violent resistance on the part of blacks was eminently justifiable, and yet he chose non-violence. For him this was surely an ideological conviction, led to with the help of the great, forgotten Bayard Rustin, but his real coup was convincing the better part of the African-American community that nonviolence would do more to end segregation than violent revolt. He was right, of course, and he was persuasive enough to prevent even greater rioting. One major reason his death provoked the riots it did was that his assassination seemed to debunk his pragmatic message, that white racism could be stopped by nonviolent resistance alone. But that message still won in the end. There were still militants in the civil rights movement in the wake of his death, the George Jacksons and Angela Davises, and there was still racial injustice, from the extrajudicial execution of Fred Hampton to the New Haven trials. But it’s indisputable that a civil rights movement without King would have been far more violent, and far less effective. And his effect would have been still greater with more time. But let’s not dwell on the tragedy. Perhaps no single man has done as much good in a mere 39 years as King; that’s something worth celebrating.