It is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It has become standard operating procedure to mark this day with remembrance of the "I have a dream" speech. It has been standard operating procedure to trot out a dumbed-down cardboard cutout of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. that is now part of the collective conscience. While feel good hagiography of MLK's life may play well in our public discourse, it ill-serves the real meaning of a life cut down in its prime.
In zeroing in on the year of 1968, the year that James Earl Ray committed his murderous act, we understand what Dr. King stood for in the last year of his life. What Dr. King was campaigning for was nothing short of a radical transformation of society in the U.S.A.
King was in Memphis for a very specific reason, the walk-out of African American sanitation workers. AFSCME local 1733 was trying to rectify the huge gap between white sanitation workers and their darker-hued compatriots. His support of the Union's cause was two-fold. First, and most obviously, it was a civil rights issue. In this regard, it was part-and-parcel of King's drive for racial equality that began all the way back with his Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955. It was also part of King's newer focus on the plight of the poor that began in 1966.
The most salient part of this new focus on poverty had to be his speech on the Vietnam War. It was a weaving together of his non-violent message of peace, and his political-religious critique of capitalism's grinding down of the economic lower tier. King not only objected to the violence of the Vietnam War, but also how it used the economically disadvantaged as so much cannon fodder. King rightly observed how it was both the poor of the United States and Vietnam who were doing all the bleeding and dying. He tied the violence of the war to the violence inherent in out-of-control political and economic system that treated all people as so many raw materials. It was a deeply radical, deeply pacifist, and deeply Christian critique that did not sit well with the status quo of the day.
King's stand on the issues of Poverty and War did not make him popular at the time. He was savaged not only by the usual suspects on the right, but also by the "moderates" of the day. Critics on the right routinely accused King of being a Communist, a Socialist, and a Radical. The right questioned King's patriotism and suggested that he wanted nothing more than to plunge the nation into racial warfare. It all sounds so oddly familiar in January of 2010. The only difference from present times is that no one ever demanded King's birth certificate as proof of his citizenship back in 1968.
It would take King's assassination to prove what a huge lie the charge of his radicalism was. His death was also the beginning of his martyrdom. The real tragedy of the man's death is how much was lost by raising him up to that exalted status. All the rough edged were sanded off. All the real humanity of the man was stripped away. More to the point, all the things the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King actually stood for were stripped away.
King stood far outside the political mainstream of his day. He was pushing for the radical alteration of the economic system. In his Poor People's campaign he stood for a minimum income. His was an in-your-face argument for fundamental wealth redistribution. It was based both on raw politics and a profound understanding of Christianity. It was Christ message, heavily informed by Marx. It was a fundamental critique of how Capitalism worked and still works. Dr. King was not interested in tweaking around the edges, he wanted radical change. His disagreement with Marx and Lenin was in how to achieve a more equitable society.
If we are to rightly remember the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, let us remember the real man. Let us remember the man as he was, a curious combination of high public morals combined with real human frailty. In his public life he soared high, and then crashed spectacularly. The March on Washington is rightly contrasted with his Poor People's March. His rigorously Christian stand on Vietnam is rightly contrasted with his lack of marital fidelity. All people are an amalgam of high virtue and low comedy. Great men and women are even more so. This MLK day let us remember the real man, not the petrified edifice that has been handed to us. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a person that we should honor not despite his faults, but precisely because of those all too human faults he had. In this way we are not only true to the man but true to ourselves.
Cross-posted At: History Isn't What it Used to Be.