Martin Luther King Jr.’s Radical Legacy

Posted: January 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

Today I’ll be marching in the Occupy contingent of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade.  In Greensboro, which was the epicenter of the sit-ins that began in February 1960 but has long been a hub of radical organizing in the South, the MLK Jr. Parade is one of the biggest events in the city all year, drawing upwards of 20,000 people out–often in sub-freezing temperatures.  After that, I’ll be leading a teach-in at Guilford College on building a movement to free political prisoners at an event that will also feature teach-ins by All of Us NC activists who are fighting the anti-family amendment that has been put on the May primary ballot.  If you live in the Greensboro area, I urge you to come out and commemorate King’s radical legacy by participating in today’s radical organizing with us!


I often wonder what Dr. King would think about his holiday, and especially what he would think about it being branded as a ‘National Day of Service.’

While it’s true that Dr. King was one of the great leaders of the Civil Rights movement, when the white government was looking for a Black person to give a holiday to, they chose him over so many others–Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Medgar Evers. And since Dr. King never once gave into white pressure or demands, we must ask ourselves why.

The surface reason–or what the white elite will give you for a reason–is that he was a great man (which he was) who promoted equality and peace (which he did). Then they proceed to pare down the life an extraordinary man to the one great speech, ‘I Have a Dream.’

The real reason they chose Dr. King to ‘honor’ was because they thought that over time, his struggle could be rebranded as something less dangerous. Half a century later, sit-ins and marches hardly seem that earth shattering to most people–mostly because the nasty parts where the police gassed, beat, shot, and killed activists are glossed over or left out entirely. In fact, they almost make it seem as though Civil Rights were in their plans all along, and Dr. King was really just their puppet. Anyone who understands the nature of Dr. King’s non-violence and civil disobedience knows that nothing could be further from the truth. But as fewer and fewer participants can give witness and the history books continue to ignore people’s struggles, we are in danger of losing the truth forever, of being left with the ‘dominant truth’–a ‘truth’ that is an outright lie.

And Dr. King’s militancy certainly presented an easier spin project than Malcolm X’s militancy. Instead of being portrayed as two great men whose ideas were coming closer and closer to convergence, King is propped up (as much as the white elite will ever prop up a empowered Black man) and Malcolm X is villified and made out to be a ‘terrorist.’ (Hmm…is this sounding a little too familiar yet?)

People’s political thought, like history, is not static.  King’s position on the systemic nature of injustice changed as he continued in the struggle.  But however he may have conceptualized it, it was always a struggle.  As Frederick Douglass had said more than a century earlier:  “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Which brings me to the ‘day of service’ notion.

Dr. King not only fought racial injustice, he fought poverty, imperialism, and capitalism. (But since those parts are ‘dangerous,’ we’re encouraged to ignore them if we’re taught them at all.) Considering this, I have a hard time believing that Dr. King would ever want us to commit ourselves in his honor and memory in service to a nation that half a century later is still racist, imperialist, and capitalist.

No. I think Dr. King would have us out in the streets marching, boycotting, and resisting today and everyday. It is a disgrace to his legacy and memory for us to become complicit in the system that he fought everyday. In the system that murdered him and so many others for their dissent and resistance.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is really about serving our community–and not the government that oppresses us–then let’s do it. The best way to serve the people–and ourselves–is to fight for our own power.  With the advent of the Occupy movement–the first mass movement to emerge in the US in more than a generation, the possibilities are wide open.

Some people say we stand on the shoulders of giants, but that’s not how I think of it.  We are all marching forward through history–all of us, alive and dead.  Now that it falls to us to bring the banner of justice forward, our struggle is made easier because people like King, like Malcolm, like so many thousands of others who struggled, are the force at our backs.




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