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Though he is widely celebrated as a national hero—martyr to an inspiring dream about our country’s largest possibilities—many younger Americans now greet Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name with suspicion, viewing him as an essentially conservative figure.
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.
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 recent 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 offer critical engagement in place of canonization. From nonviolence to nuclear disarmament to full employment, the essays below recover—and scrutinize—the profoundly radical nature of King’s political, moral, and religious thought.
Many of the essays below come from our book Fifty Years Since MLK. Get it for 25% off this weekend with code MLK2522, or get it for free with any print membership with code MLKMBR.
The celebration of King’s official legacy as a cuddly figure of unity and tolerance serves to erase his politics from public memory.
Whether addressing church parishioners or college students, King often demanded an end to the nuclear arms race.
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A video interview with Brandon Terry.
Support for the U.S. military has long been seen as a crucial way for black Americans and immigrants to show that they “belong.”
The persistence of black poverty has become a permanent feature of U.S. democracy. We need an expanded political imagination to dismantle it.