King’s well-documented commitment to nonviolent social change remains one his most important legacies, yet this portrait of the man is woefully incomplete without a discussion of his revolutionary political thought and practice. King urged civil rights activists, law enforcement personnel and all Americans to practice nonviolence, yet white people then and now act as if this principle should apply only to the racially and economically oppressed.
America’s unfolding national racial crisis — the product of white supremacy, a virus far deadlier than the coronavirus — has many people wondering: “What would Martin Luther King Jr. do” in the face of widespread racial oppression, massive nationwide protests and presidential leadership that is openly hostile to the very idea of black dignity and citizenship?
King was the civil rights movement’s greatest political mobilizer and symbol. During the hottest political summers in American history, King recognized violent political rebellions reaching from Birmingham, Ala., to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles as the organic response to racial oppression and structural violence.
King responded with action to what critics called riots, activists described as rebellions and the government labeled civil disturbances. After Birmingham exploded on Mother’s Day in 1963, he urged the Kennedy administration to hold local officials to their promises to integrate the city’s downtown and businesses. Following Harlem’s unrest a year later, King engaged in intense, though ultimately futile, negotiations to curb police violence against black communities through a civilian police review board and other reforms. Racial violence in Los Angeles transformed King. Watts erupted, like Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of violent conflict between the police and segregated black communities. King preached nonviolence to angry residents, but he listened intently to their desperate pleas for dignity and citizenship.
In an essay titled “Beyond the Los Angeles Riots,” King announced bold plans to achieve racial and economic justice in American cities by unleashing a massive campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience, what would become the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-1968. He characterized the scores of mayors and politicians who feted him after his Nobel Peace Prize but ignored the depth and breadth of racial segregation, poverty, homelessness and unemployment in their own backyards as devoid of “compassion” and “statesmanship.”
The youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 34, King used his global prestige after the Watts rebellion to explain the reasons for the civil disorder sweeping the country.
In the wake of hundreds of small and large disturbances that dotted the American political landscape as the 1960s progressed, King spoke truth to power like never before. He toured the nation like a man on fire, excoriating racist politicians in Dixie and cities outside the South, such as Chicago. King’s break with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society was rooted in the Vietnam War’s immorally destructive redistribution of resources away from eliminating poverty and racism in service of amplifying America’s imperial presence on the world stage.
King’s bold truth-telling alienated him from much of the white political and media establishment that had contributed to his rise, in part by contrasting his Christian faith and philosophy of nonviolence with Malcolm X and the rise of black nationalism, self-defense and political self-determination.
My recent book, “The Sword and the Shield,” examines the revolutionary lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., two iconic activists who are remembered as polar opposites. But over time, King and Malcolm X influenced each other on the subjects of radical black dignity and citizenship. King, while never giving up on nonviolence as a personal philosophy and political tactic, came to embrace envelope-pushing demonstrations of civil disobedience as critical to redeeming America’s racially wounded soul.
It is worth remembering, now more than ever, that King locked arms with Black Power radical Stokely Carmichael, negotiated with African American gang leaders from Chicago to Memphis and became an active, patient listener to a new generation of multiracial radicals who longed for the fundamental transformation of America’s racial and economic status quo.
In 1967, King announced himself as a global revolutionary, and not just through his public repudiation of the Vietnam War. He framed his opposition as a moral stance against “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” — America.
King called for a racial peace based on acknowledging the depths of America’s racial and economic violence against black folk. His support for a $180 billion “Freedom Budget” designed to eradicate poverty dovetailed with his plans to organize a multiracial demonstration of the poor in the nation’s capital. The Poor People’s Campaign represents the first Occupy Movement, organized to shame elected officials into providing a universal basic income, health care, nourishing food, decent housing and a safe environment for all Americans.
King’s proposed answer to the urban violence that engulfed the cities of Newark and Detroit in 1967 was to eliminate black ghettos as a matter of policy and eradicate white racism to save the nation’s soul. When Johnson characterized looting in Detroit as having nothing to do with civil rights, King fired off a telegram challenging this perspective. Only “drastic changes in the life of the poor” would lead to peace, he suggested. “I propose specifically the creation of a national agency that shall provide a job to every person who needs work.”
We know how King would respond to our current mean season of political unrest, racial division and state-sanctioned violence. He understood much more than the fact that “riots were the language of the unheard.” He eloquently argued that the racial upheaval gripping the country during the 1960s was the direct result of white supremacy’s uncanny hold on every aspect of American life, from public schools, housing and health care to criminal justice, employment and domestic and foreign policy.
What would Martin Luther King Jr. do in our time? King would not denounce the looters, but focus on the economic, social, and political conditions that produced mass protests contoured by bursts of violence. He would find our age of racial division, white denial and spreading wealth inequality and violence an all too familiar artifact of his own time. His response, then, would be to speak on behalf of the indigent, to help feed the poor and to organize for the revolutionary policy changes that will finally make the kind of uprisings we are now experiencing a thing of the past.