The Depoliticization of MLK Jr.



(Yasmina Martin)– I have been told the story of Martin Luther King Jr. countless times during my K-12 education. His use of nonviolent methods adopted from Gandhi and his calls to judge people “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character” were repeated to me often in my formative years. To me, King was always a familiar figure, a hero with a tragic story and someone I respected and admired. In school, we were taught that MLK was a pacifist, that he believed in love over hate, that he was, in a way, neutral.  It took going to college and exploring racist justice issues to discover King’s radical activism that had been hidden from the textbooks and dulled down in our classroom lectures.

MLK Jr. has become a near-mythical figure of American history, someone who is praised for his nonviolent actions while his political leanings and work for economic justice are totally glossed over.  His lifelong work has been reduced to an advertisement for colorblindness and his anti-militarism is never mentioned in the mainstream media or in our high school history textbooks. In fact, King himself wanted “radical changes to the structure of our society,” something that mainstream history ignores. What we see is the depoliticization of King’s worldview, changing him from “a radical anti-poverty activist into a charismatic integrationist.” [source]

The passage of the civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965 signaled a shift in King’s organizing activities. To him, absolutely equality was impossible without a project that approached the issues of poverty and class. King recognized the connections between race and class and was eager to rectify what he knew was a flawed society. More people are aware of the March on Selma than the Poor People’s Campaign, which aimed to address economic injustices for all Americans. The campaign, which began in 1967 after a tumultuous summer of race riots, focused on getting congress to sign an Economic Bill of Rights that guaranteed appropriate housing, a fair minimum wage, and more jobs for low-income Americans. After his assassination, the campaign continued with SCLC leader Ralph Abernathy at its helm. Protesters built a shanty-town on the National Mall called “Resurrection City” and spent almost a month camping on the site and demonstrating.  Although the campaign didn’t bring about much change in legislation, it brought thousands of activists to Washington D.C and its continuation allowed Coretta Scott King and the SCLC to honor King’s memory.  One can draw clear parallels between the Poor People’s Campaign and the 2011-2012 Occupy Movement that took the world by storm.

A PPC protest in Detroit, Michigan (Reuther's Library)
A PPC protest in Detroit, Michigan (Reuther’s Library)

King also made the argument that the United States spent a fortune fighting the war in Vietnam while Americans at home were living in poverty.  He presented his anti-Vietnam feelings in an 1967 address when he said, “It is estimated that we spend approximately $500,000 to kill a single enemy soldier in Vietnam, and yet we spend about $53 for each impoverished American in anti-poverty programs….the government is emotionally committed to war. It is emotionally hostile to the needs of the poor.” [source] King’s activism and political work goes much deeper than the popular integration notions that we’ve all come to know so well.

Why is it easier for some to accept the colorblind, peaceful King rather than the more radical figure he really was? Rosa Parks’ story  is diluted in the same way when presented in popular culture; as young students, we are told she was merely resting her feet, tired from a long day of work, and not a woman fed up with the mistreatment of Blacks in America and ready to make a change. Transforming these activists’ work into fables allows us to forget that their fight isn’t over.  It allows their image to become static and unchanging, a tool to be manipulated by feel-good liberals who adopt colorblind rhetoric and ignore institutionalized racism. These people are much like Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham’s character in “Girls” who tells her black boyfriend: “You know what? I never thought about the fact that you were black once.” In many ways, King’s words still ring true today:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Originally published January 24, 2013