MLK Was a Revolutionary, Not Just a Dreamer

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights. He also fought against war and poverty.

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PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Yet King’s powerful rage against economic exploitation and war is often overlooked when we think of him as only a race-healer. King’s well-remembered adherence to nonviolence often obscures his use of other tactics. He vowed to never use violence, and he kept this promise, but King sought to bend the will of the American people on behalf of the dispossessed (including, but not limited to, African Americans) and used speeches, demonstrations, time spent in jail and camp-ins to achieve his goals.

The passionate orator who told a crowd during his last speech that he was defying an injunction against demonstrations because “the greatness of America lies in the right to protest for right!” has vanished in the holiday’s celebrations, replaced instead by the image of the dreamer at the March on Washington five years earlier.

But King was more than a simple dreamer or a lone individual who inspired the black community. The black-freedom struggle made King, just as he, in turn, helped shape the movement. And MLK, ultimately, was no less a revolutionary than Malcolm X.

King’s accolades have come at a high cost—it took his death for America to embrace him. And the price for national esteem has been to strip the memory of one our most revolutionary figures of the political radicalism that made him one of the most effective political leaders in history. Ironically, it’s what allows us to celebrate his life today.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published in 2014 by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.

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