During this weekend that celebrates what should have been the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 85th birthday, it’s time to reflect on his legacy and reimagine the significance of commemorations attached to his name.
King’s outsize iconography towers over contemporary American race relations. Through a hard-won national holiday, hundreds of books and, most recently, a memorial dedicated in 2012 in the nation’s capital, King’s image has become a permanent fixture in public memory.
King’s prophetic vision of American democracy, heroic efforts to mobilize black Americans for justice, and brief, sacrificial time on the public stage have become part of a national mythology of the civil rights era. In this telling, King emerges as a talented individual whose rhetorical genius at the March on Washington helped elevate an entire nation through his moral power and sheer force of will. Like the Old Testament prophet Moses, King was allowed to see but not cross over into the Promised Land.
Yet missing from many of the annual King celebrations is the portrait of a political revolutionary who, over time, evolved into a radical warrior for peace, justice and the eradication of poverty. During his last three years, King the “Dreamer” turned into one of the most eloquent, powerful and scathing critics of American society. King lent his moral force and power to anti-poverty crusades that questioned the economic system of capitalism and called for an end to the Vietnam War.
By 1968, King was in the middle of organizing the ambitious Poor People’s Campaign, designed to bring together a multicultural sampling of the nation’s poor to camp in a tent city on the Washington Mall until Congress passed significant anti-poverty legislation. According to King, the war on poverty had been sacrificed by expenditures spent in Vietnam.
In an unwitting testament to his commitment to the struggle of working Americans, King was assassinated amid a campaign to rally sanitation workers on strike for decent wages and better working conditions in Memphis, Tenn.
Yet King’s powerful rage against economic exploitation and war is often overlooked when we think of him as only a race-healer. 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.
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.