Revisiting Righteous Indignation

The Radical Tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s a scene in Lee Daniel’s The Butler when the son of Forest Whitaker’s character is sitting in the Lorraine Motel with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., shortly before his assassination. Dr. King asks those assembled, “How many of your parents support the war?” All the young men gathered in the room raise their hands, and in one sentence King summarizes that his opposition to the war is because the Vietnamese do not prejudice blacks. There is something insidious in this scene, unintentional by the director, no doubt. It is the reproduction of the simplification myth of Dr. King the crusader of a narrowly conceptualized struggle, rather than the fiery radical that he was. His opposition to the Vietnam War was far more complex than the one liner afforded his character in the film, but the portrayal is sadly in line with the hijacking of his comprehensive philosophy. For King’s was a radicalism of total justice, for black, white, rich, poor, gay, lesbian, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, that bears remembering as we honor him with a federal holiday this week.

One year to the day before his assassination, on April 4th, 1967, Dr. King delivered his most critical and divisive speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. It was an impassioned excoriation of imperialism and militarism, against the American government that King referred to as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” There was no ambivalence in his conviction. He had refused a first draft prepared by his close friend and legal counsel, Clarence Jones, which attempted to present multiple sides, favoring the total condemnation of war provided in Vincent Harding’s first version. The two men agreed; their conscience left them no other choice but to speak out. King says:

It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Four years earlier, in a Letter from a Birmingham Jail Dr. King acknowledged that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He was certainly focused on combating the institutionalized terror of segregation and racism, which was the target of the direct action that found him in that Birmingham Jail on April 16th, 1963. But, his concern for justice everywhere extended beyond contemporary popular depictions that his campaigning was confined to concerns of race alone. King makes it very clear,

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Of course, that same purveyor of violence abroad targeted in Beyond Vietnam, the United States, perpetrated and sponsored a great deal of violence against its own people and the struggle for human rights in the United States is a savage one still raging 28 years after the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as myriad incidents such as the killing and trial surrounding Trayvon Martin or Jena 6 illustrate. It is not my intention to downplay the brutality of racial injustice targeted by King and others. My intention is to point out that King acknowledged that the causes of these and other injustices were inherently linked to a certain structure of oppression. King and others targeted the totality of this violent power structure through sustained nonviolent action. It is that narrative of comprehensive resistance that has been sterilized. In sickening episodes of appropriation, King has become a plaything in the hands of those who seek to justify their profiting from that same structure of abuse that he fought against with the bastardization of his legacy.

King’s most famous oration is his I Have a Dream speech and rightly should it be hailed for its outstanding rhetoric and the power of change it inspired. But so is “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” far less threatening to the established structure of power than denouncing it as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Latching onto King as the desegregater and not King the fiery radical is more comfortable for the creation of King the symbol.

Vincent Harding explained in a 2013 interview that conservatives love to take hold of the I have a Dream speech when King talks about not being judged by the color of ones skin as a way to avoid discussing race at all. In the same interview Harding challenges us to find ways to discover the content of one’s character. It is through critical dialogue, through nonviolent engagement, he says. Meanwhile, as evidence of Harding’s concern, former Republican Florida representative, Allen West, wrote in an article for USA News on the 50th anniversary of that speech, that King’s dream had been derailed by liberal politics. While Dr. King advocated evaluation on the content of one’s character, he opined, Americans had instead voted for Obama strictly based upon the color of his skin.

The famous speech was uttered to an assembled crowd of more than 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. With reason it is remembered as a decisive moment in the American Civil Rights Movement. What is often altered through the lens of history, however, is the action at which the speech was delivered. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was as much about race as it was about economic inequality. Its chief architects remind us of the diversity of participation and the complexity of grievances within the Civil Rights Movement. The 1963 campaign drew its inspiration from the 1940’s desegregationist and labor rights March on Washington Movement organized by Philip Randolph, who began as a labor organizer and activist in New York in 1917, and Bayard Rustin, an openly gay former Quaker conscientious objector during World War II. It is this confluence of interests that better encapsulates the character of King’s resistance, so callously warped by Allen West 50 years later.

There is no greater bastardization of King’s legacy than Glenn Beck’s 2010 so-called ‘Restoring Honor Rally.’ In his characteristic histrionics Beck credited divine inspiration in the timing of his political theatre set to coincide with the 47th anniversary of King’s I have a Dream speech. He claimed to be picking up Martin Luther King’s dream in order to restore and finish it. But Beck’s narrative is one of resounding contradiction to everything epitomized by Martin Luther King.

A month preceding the farce Glenn Beck spoke with King’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, who later also participated in his rally, alongside Sarah Palin and others. Shockingly the niece embraced Beck’s subterfuge on his television program. The two, joined by then Republican congressional hopeful Stephen Broden, went so far as to cite the Biblical idea of an individual relationship with God as the justification for neo-liberal individualism, and the implicit demonization of social welfare. The outrage is not in their personal interpretation of Biblical text but the way their discussion forced that argument into their constructed narrative of Martin Luther King. The obscenity continued when Alveda King claimed that her uncle would have approved of Beck’s message.

Not only did Beck use the platform of his rally to further his rhetoric of violence against the poor but the event was also billed to celebrate and promote the American military. Glenn Beck is a wild supporter of American militarism and most recently attacked a LA Weekly film critic because she gave a recent war movie a bad review. Glenn Beck is as good an antithesis to Martin Luther King as is available and because of the pomposity of his pulpit he represents an ideal lens through which to appreciate the various trends of abandoning King’s message and profaning his name to justify the very things he so fervently fought against. And yet, popular outrage at Beck’s appropriation of King’s legacy was equally culpable in neglecting King’s fervent posture against materialism and militarism, or so the majority of mainstream criticism seemed to be.

In response to this kind of theft of the King narrative, Union Theological Seminary philosopher and preacher, Dr. Cornel West explains,

The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the moment with credible claims about government corruption and ridiculous claims about tax cuts’ stimulating growth. This right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King’s four catastrophes; its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most Americans.

Despite the issues addressed by Dr. West, it is far from merely conservatives and right-wing populists who have distorted King’s inherent radical commitment, and subdued the awesome force of his righteous indignation. History has been contorted to shape a more consumer friendly image of Martin Luther King Jr. He is not hailed by popular commentary or honored by Obama on the federal holiday as the radical who would today be decrying the prison and military industrial complex, demanding the trial and incarceration of Wall Street executives, and sternly speaking against Obama’s continuation of Bush era disregard for human rights in the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs,’ or the appallingly disproportionate numbers of convictions for people of color in the latter. Where would King stand on the Tea Party’s fetishism of state’s rights? One might recall the number of incidents necessitating federal troop intervention in Alabama, Arkansas, and elsewhere or the same rhetoric now employed by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Rand Paul that echoes similar positions by “Bull” Connor or George Wallace. How might King relate to Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, or, as public intellectual Tavis Smiley has posed, comment on the more than a billion dollars raised between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 election versus the money spent on poverty reduction?

Martin Luther King gave his final speech on April 3rd, 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis Tennessee. What is often remembered of that last prophetic I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech is King’s, “And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” The speech is haunting in retrospect because it almost seemed as if King were prophesizing, much like Christ at the last supper, his impending assassination. But what drew King to Memphis that day is less repeated in popular retelling.

Dr. James Lawson, who like King had been baptized in the late 1950s by the nonviolent tradition of Ghandi and was a powerful figure in the movement, had encouraged Dr. King to join him in Memphis to show support at the Memphis sanitation worker strike that had begun two months earlier. The catalyzing incident for the strike was the gruesome death of two black sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, crushed to death because of city rules that stated black sanitation workers were only allowed to shelter from the elements in the back of their garbage trucks. The incident served to highlight years of gross labor violations and sparked the strike, along with boycotts, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience in support of the workers attempt to engage in collective bargaining for better working conditions. This episode in Memphis was about racial discrimination but it was also about abhorrent labor rights and the exploitation of the poor.

King often reiterated the call to struggle against all forms of atrocity, violence against people of color and violence against the poor, as they are inextricably linked, and so too is war, the enemy of the poor, as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley are wont to repeat. Or in his own words from the August 16th, 1967 Where do We go From Here, “when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

The day after standing in solidarity with the Memphis strikers, King was gunned down by James Earl Ray, an outspoken racist and active campaign volunteer for George Wallace’s pro-segregationist presidential campaign. Despite the prima facie connection between Ray’s racism and the assassination, Vincent Harding is convinced that the most contributing factor to King’s murder was his vociferous condemnation of the war in Vietnam and his outspoken denouncement of American imperialism and militarism. We do at least know that the last poll taken on King’s popularity revealed that indeed fifty-five percent of black community and seventy-two percent of Americans at large had turned against King because of his opposition to the war.

By the late 1960s the US government, under the Johnson administration, had slowly become prepared to tolerate some of the notions of increasing racial equality and access to public space but the apex of intellectual and symbolic power, the capitalist war machine, was aghast that King would enter their world. The structure of power was warming to the idea of tolerating King the civil rights leader and desegregationist but it was unwilling to desegregate the symbolic power to be analyzed and critiqued. It is a segregation of thought and a demonization of those who would criticize America that still haunts whistleblowers and activists in Obama’s America today. It was King’s sophisticated and emboldening challenge to capitalist morality and militaristic or imperialistic motives that needed to be sterilized before he could become a politically viable symbol.

In a recent piece for Salon, historian David L. Chappell outlines the history of congressional objections to the creation of an MLK federal holiday. His article serves to refute the odd conservative claims to the legacy of civil rights going back to Lincoln, because of textual similarity in the name of their party. A few days after the assassination, Michigan Democratic congressman, John Conyers, first proposed honoring Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday. Illinois was the first state to adopt MLK Day as a state holiday in 1973. Ten years later, North Carolina senator Jesse Helms loudly objected to honoring King with a federal holiday, specifically citing King’s stance on Vietnam and his war on poverty, calling him a Marxist and Communist. As reported at the time, Helms’ fanatical objections were crushed by a ‘scathing denunciation’ by senator Edward Kennedy and similar criticism from Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole. But two recent Republican presidential candidates, Ron Paul and John McCain were among those who agreed with Helms in objecting a federal holiday for MLK. After nearly two decades of discussion and puerile character assassination, Congress eventually passed Conyers’ proposal to remember King with a federal holiday. Reagan signed the bill in 1983 and it took effect in 1986. Shockingly not until 2000 did all 50 states recognize it as a state holiday. South Carolina was the last.

In observation of the 28th MLK day it is a moral duty to ensure that the legacy observed is honest to the content of his character. We should repeat his rhetorical question of August 16th, 1967. In his own words, “When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalist economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”

King broadened the target of his resistance to encapsulate the totality of an oppressive power structure, moving beyond purely race-based grievances. The abhorrent racism prevalent in King’s America and its mutated contemporary manifestations are a byproduct of this power but King’s speeches reveal a more diverse synthesis for resistance. It was this unwavering challenge of the very foundations of that structure of power that needed to be sterilized, lest his posthumous words serve their intentions to mobilize. By stripping him of his radicalism, and simplifying his challenges against power to a selection of sound-bite grievances, the institutions of oppression maintained their monopoly on symbolic power and rebranded Martin Luther King into more comfortable and narrowly confined terms.

This is the alchemical disregard for truth that has attempted to warp the spirit of King’s radicalism for political expediency. It has become a convenient platform for some to spin King’s radicalism into a defanged demand for racial harmony and a colorless society, where claims of reverse racism are mingled with blanket denouncements of racial violence because we live in a post-racial America. It is a twisted appropriation of King’s words to blame the victim of abuse for continued victimization, and we see this in the surprisingly bipartisan attacks on the poor and people of color. For some, King’s Reverend status has become an argument for injecting fundamentalist evangelicalism into politics, as we noticed of Beck above.

These are the most flagrant bastardizations but what is more frustrating is the popular amnesia, the collective will to accept the sterilized form and neglect the righteous indignation that demands coordinated action in the face of all injustice. This is not to neglect active resistance such as the Occupy movement and myriad other campaigns. However, in certain contemporary radical movements we find the negative effects of the simplification of King’s sophisticated analysis of the diversity of oppression and the need for coordinated, strategic resistance. We can see this in the balkanization of resistance on the left, where interests vie for prominence rather than seeking consensus. A continuing frustration for those who have carried on with King, Lawson, and others’ efforts is the abandonment of strategic nonviolence, or treating King as nothing more than a symbolic tactic, for the same kind of commoditized radicalism that has made radical democratic theory or Anarchism a fashion accessory.

It is King’s righteous indignation at injustice everywhere and profound challenge to all forms of abusive power that should be reenacted in his name,  not the political pageantry of Obama’s community service. With that radical reenactment we must respond to the question “where do we go from here?” Dr. Cornel West hazarded a response in 2011, noting that rather than a memorial King would have wanted a revolution.

Michael Caster is a researcher and human rights advocate. He has lived and worked in five countries on four continents, focusing on nonviolent civil resistance and contentious politics. On Twitter @michaelcaster and he can be reached at Read other articles by Michael.