I was taught about Martin Luther King Jr in elementary school. You probably were too. I was taught that he was a civil rights leader who waged a war of non-violence to secure equal rights for black Americans. If you’re like most people, this is probably what you learned about him also.
I didn’t learn much about Malcolm X in elementary school, or in any of my schooling, to be frank. I think I would have at least had the opportunity to do so had I continued to university, but in elementary, middle, and high school, all I was taught about Malcolm X was that he was a violent anti-white extremist. This is, I now know, either a vast oversimplification or an outright lie, depending on the context.
Isn’t it funny how our culture paints these men differently? By selectively employing his own rhetoric, the dominant culture has rendered Malcolm X inaccessible to young white people, even though his message and legacy are at least as important as Dr. King’s.
But Dr. King’s message has been muddied using those same methods, just in a different way.
Every year Martin Luther King Day rolls around, and the media is awash with shows and articles that celebrate the man. Even wealthy right-wing political pundits have complimentary things to say about him. He is this golden figure, a charismatic and fatherly man who led a racially united America to enlightenment. His revolution was, in cultural retrospect, a safe one; it was safe because it had room for whiteness.
Except it didn’t. Dr. King’s future included white people, but not people of privilege. Dr. King took a more holistic view and painted a world in which all people were equal. This sounds like an idea that most people could get behind, but the methods that he described are dangerous to the way society is currently run and terrifying to people in positions of privilege.
“White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change of the status quo.”
Doesn’t it seem strange to see this quote from a man who Rand Paul and Glenn Beck both claim to hold as a personal hero? Paul even went so far as to claim that Dr. King expressed libertarian ideals, but this is not the truth. Dr. King came out in favor of a future that included the nationalization of industry and a more just distribution of wealth. He believed these things because he understood that as long as people struggle under the burden of poverty, they are essentially powerless; they have no choices in life, no freedom, and are enslaved. He saw people, both white and black, struggling under the yoke of poverty, and it pained him.
“I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve walked the streets of Chicago and see Negroes, young men and women, with a sense of utter hopelessness because they can’t find any jobs. … I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve been through Appalachia, and I’ve seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in poverty. And I’m concerned about white poverty as much as I’m concerned about Negro poverty.”
It pained him both because he knew that gulfs of economic inequality resulted in inequality of opportunity; and without equality of opportunity, he knew that his dream of universal equality for mankind would never come true.
“I would certainly welcome the day to come when there will be a nationalization of industry. Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color.”
These ideas were dangerous; especially during a time that coincided with the Vietnam war, part of a longstanding cultural terror of communism and socialism. His political and economic views combined with the fact that he was an outspoken opponent of the war brought him under scrutiny by government agencies, including the FBI and the NSA. You can read more about Operation Minaret here, including the fact that even the NSA admits that the program was probably illegal.
Considering the savage attacks against the first black president of the United States of America for his “socialist” tendencies (tendencies that Barack Obama does not actually possess), it seems odd, doesn’t it, that one of our national heroes once said that capitalism had outlived its usefulness. I maintain a strong belief in capitalism… I love the idea that people can own business and industry and make their own mark in the marketplace. But even I can see that in the modern day, the system has gone wrong, and the vision of Martin Luther King Jr has gone unfulfilled for centuries, despite the lip service we pay to it.
But that’s not the Martin Luther King Jr that I was taught about in school. No, I was taught about the orator and preacher with the beatific smile, who wanted blacks and whites to walk hand in hand. And while this version is true, it is only half of what is a very incredible story. There’s a lot more about Dr. King’s movement that I don’t feel comfortable discussing, because it comes from a perspective that I do not own, and I would not feel right in claiming; but you can read more about it here, in a powerfully written piece that a friend of mine posted via Facebook.
I would like to think that the exclusion of a vast portion of Dr. King’s ideals are excluded from mention for well-intentioned and practical reasons… I would like to think that perhaps history books include his work on civil rights exclusively because that is what he succeeded the most in changing, and thus the way in which he had the greatest impact on society. But I sometimes believe that this whitewashing of an incredible man happened because his ideas of economic equality are dangerous to people in power, and he had to be embraced but defanged… we must accept the hero, but remove his ability to give further hope.