- - Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The political dramas playing out in Washington — the fallout of the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol and the inauguration of a new president — may have overshadowed the annual marking of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a holiday that usually provokes some reflection on the civil rights hero’s legacy.

There was irony in watching the Trump-to-Biden transfer of power nearly monopolize Americans’ attention, because King’s legacy is as relevant as ever — not the sanitized, one-dimensional King remembered for his heroic efforts at racial justice and reconciliation. A more radical, complicated King, although committed to non-violent resistance, believed in forcefully upsetting the existing order.  

King sharply criticized capitalism. He condemned the Vietnam War, referring to the U.S. government “as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” in a powerful oration at a historic church in New York in 1967, a year before his death. King castigated white moderates who were “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

Recovering the full profile of King’s activism and worldview is important because the events of our time resemble the tumultuous 1960s. America today is fighting endless wars in faraway places. We experienced a summer of racial protest over police brutality. Moreover, Donald Trump rode to the White House on a populist fervor fueled in part by racial resentments, and a mob with a number of known white supremacists attacked the U.S. Capitol to overturn the election on Jan. 6.    

In Episode 4 of History As It Happens, the conversation focuses on why King tied these issues together to explain why freedom for Black Americans had been delayed for so long. For instance, the war in Vietnam drained funds from the Great Society anti-poverty program at home.

As King said during an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show in 1967, “I think this war is playing havoc with our domestic destinies. It has been estimated that we spend about $500,000 to kill every enemy soldier while we spent only about $53 a year for every person categorized as poverty-stricken.”

The civil rights leader expounded on his anti-war views in his aforementioned oration at the Riverside Church in New York, and by this point, King’s popularity had already sunk to a low point.  A Gallup poll in 1966 found almost two-thirds of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of him — a rather different attitude than the one prevailing today in American society, where King is almost universally idolized. 

“I do think Dr. King’s legacy has been sanitized in many cases and simplified,” said historian Raymond Arsenault of the University of South Florida, an author of 10 books on the civil rights movement, in an interview for the podcast.

“It really sells him short as an impactful figure in American history and world history. His radicalism is sometimes forgotten because he was such a devoted follower of non-violence,” said Arsenault. “It was true to some degree during King’s lifetime.”

King was an opponent of the Vietnam War before his 1967 speech but he muted his criticisms of U.S. militarism to avoid rankling allies who wanted the movement’s focus to remain solely domestic affairs, Arsenault said. But, as King articulated from that New York pulpit, the two issues could not be separated any longer.    

Here is an excerpt from his ‘Beyond Vietnam’ oration:

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

Arsenault said King’s remarks did not go over well. 

“King decided to let it all out. His advisors warned him against it. They really thought it would alienate people within the civil rights movement and in the broader society,” said Arsenault, who said ardent criticism of the war alienated an important King ally, President Lyndon Johnson.

A little more than a year later, King was assassinated in Memphis one week after leading a march in support of striking sanitation workers, part of the burgeoning Poor People’s Campaign. His vision of justice had expanded to include economic rights as fundamental to civil rights.

The Black Lives Matter protests that broke out after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota served as a reminder that the spirit of King’s activism lives on, although his work remains incomplete, Arsenault said.

“It was so encouraging that so many people turned out who had never been involved in political activism before,” he said.

Opposition to war, poverty, and unchecked capitalism, as well as institutional racism, comprised King’s activism — a more complete picture of our past that better serves our understanding of the present.

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