The 47th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination should inspire us all to reimagine this political revolutionary’s final act as a statesman and civil rights leader.
In the afterglow of the March on Washington and the Selma-to-Montgomery march, King became a pillar of fire, rejecting the course of political moderation and social reform that had made him palatable to white leaders and a hero to African Americans.
King’s final years found him linking the struggle for racial justice to a wider crusade to end war and poverty. Tellingly, his comprehensive approach, which focused on changing America’s foreign and domestic policies as well as hearts and minds, found him under attack by critics who claimed that he was in over his head on the subject of Vietnam and foolish to break with former ally President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The radical King formed an anti-war political alliance with black power leader Stokely Carmichael. On April 15, 1967, in New York City, King and Carmichael headlined the largest anti-war rally in American history to that date, placing two of the era’s leading black political activists at the forefront of a still-unpopular anti-war movement.
King had also publicly repudiated the war in Vietnam exactly one year to the day before his death in a speech at Riverside Church in New York City. His speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” announced his formal break with both the Johnson Administration (he would never visit the White House again) and political moderation.
Journalists and newspapers immediately attacked King for going beyond his civil rights portfolio into the world of foreign policy and international politics. Many publicly denounced him for having irrevocably damaged the black freedom struggle by linking it to the Vietnam War. King’s public approval ratings dropped precipitously among whites and blacks for his uncompromising stance.
His final speech, in Memphis, Tenn., where he aided 1,000 striking black sanitation workers, concluded with biblical references to having seen the “promised land,” and is noteworthy for its rhetorical and political combativeness.
In words that would not sound out of place at contemporary #BlackLivesMatter protests, King asserted that “the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
King’s political evolution remains unacknowledged by most of the American public, leading to the irony of critics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement asserting that contemporary protesters would do well to follow in the footsteps of King and other heroes of the civil rights era. Missing from such criticism is the reality of the later King, the prophet who, after being recognized in his own lifetime, was thoroughly disregarded by past allies, politicians and the public for speaking truth to power in a manner that made the entire nation uncomfortable.
At the end of his life, King asserted that racism, militarism and materialism represented the greatest threats to humanity that the world had ever seen. History has proved King’s words to be prophetic.
The massive protests that erupted last year in the wake of grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., represent, in both symbolic and substantive ways, a continuation of the radical King’s political work.
Updating King’s “triple threat” means understanding the ways in which the militarism of which he spoke has invaded our domestic sphere through mass incarceration; how materialism promotes the largest income and wealth gap between the rich and poor in American history; and how institutional racism contours our current social, political and economic systems.
King spent his whole life preaching an unusually eloquent message that black lives mattered. His two most famous political sermons (at the March on Washington in 1963 and in Montgomery, Ala., in 1965) were broadcast by every major television network.
Yet there were many more radical speeches to be made, ones that linked political revolution to radical policy changes that went beyond the vote, that advocated economic redistribution and an end to war, along with a “revolution in values” designed to transform the very foundations of American democracy. It is this King whom #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations most accurately reflect and honor, even as he’s the one our nation continues to ignore.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.