It will be impossible to escape Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “dream” today, served up as hopeful aspiration draped in pride (or worry) over “who we are as a country.” But only a dupe or a demagogue would invoke that dream to bolster American nationalism or conceal our current nightmare of inequality and racial violence.
Five decades after King’s assassination, the United States is a perverse inversion of the democracy he and other members of the black freedom struggle envisioned.
If King pictured a “beloved community” whose social wealth would be shared by all, America is instead an oligarchy in which the greed of a tiny elite ensures the suffering of millions. If King preached peace and racial justice, the U.S. is instead a war regime predicated upon the disposability of nonwhite people at home and abroad.
Ironically, King himself has been transformed posthumously into an emblem of national virtue. The American power structure that once harassed King and resisted the grass-roots struggle to which he belonged now celebrates him as proof of the strength of our reform traditions. As historian Jeanne Theoharis writes in her forthcoming book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, “A story that should have reflected the immense injustices at the nation’s core and the enormous lengths people had gone to attack them had become a flattering mirror.”
It’s time to smash that mirror —and reclaim the true King.
For 50 years, the self-serving narrative of a movement that fulfilled a nation’s promise has helped buttress claims of U.S. legitimacy.
As King commemorations were codified as innocuous rituals of civic engagement, safely neutering the legacy of a man who agitated for economic equality, the crimes of American plutocrats multiplied. They and other Western capitalists mounted a stunning counteroffensive in the wake of the popular upheavals of the 1960s. They waged class warfare amid the industrial decline of the late 20th century, recapturing the political apparatus, shredding the social safety net and slashing unions, taxes and regulation.
As the nation established a holiday for King, who condemned American imperialism and war, the country’s leaders used economic and military might to subvert governments, penetrate foreign markets and seize the wealth of the developing world. American interventions left a bloody streak across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. As the Soviet Union collapsed, oil lust drove a cataclysmic expansion of American aggression in the Middle East. By the early 21st century, U.S. militarism encompassed the planet, with swarms of drones and bases fueling the project of endless war.
Thus, in the decades following King’s death in 1968, the clash between the rhetoric of democracy and the reality of domination intensified. The culture industry and a portion of the ruling class embraced the symbols of racial inclusion, especially as doing so became a way to bolster one’s moral authority. Yet many such proponents of diversity also condoned a grotesquely racist prison system, devastating military assaults on countries Americans regard as nonwhite and the regimes of globalization, privatization and austerity that spread misery across the planet. As historian and journalist Jelani Cobb noted, “On King’s seventy-fifth birthday, in 2004, President George W. Bush, mired in a disastrous war in Iraq, took the time to lay a wreath at King’s tomb, in Atlanta.”
Recognizing the hypocrisy of such gestures, some progressive thinkers have attempted to counter triumphalist narratives of race with alternative accounts of struggle. Their efforts include an ongoing campaign to reclaim the radical King. Every year, writers, activists and scholars depict the slain leader not as the incarnation of U.S. egalitarianism but as an ardent foe of inequality and empire. Their work has significantly broadened the historical portrait of a figure whose internationalist and democratic socialist outlooks expanded during the 1960s; who came to see modern capitalism as the structural source of poverty and racism; who called for guaranteed income and employment and other strongly redistributive policies; and who denounced America’s exploits in Vietnam.
These revelations are critical weapons in the battle over public memory. But they cannot transcend the limits of commemoration. King tributes almost inevitably elevate the charismatic individual over the collective. They reinforce the false impression that elegant speech trumps mass revolt. Nor can cogent re-evaluations of King vanquish more politically quiescent visions of the man.
After all, King as an appendage of the state, as an unassailable yet docile icon, has outlived and largely eclipsed the flesh-and-blood leader, who died at 39. Nowadays, MLK events are hopelessly routinized affairs. As a genre, they exist primarily to sanitize America’s past and validate its present.
So how do we revive King’s true legacy? We might start by separating the history of black struggle from the fantasy of American exceptionalism. The motive force of social change is popular mobilization, not the inherent righteousness of the U.S.
If we wish to recover the authentic King, we must also reject the myth of inexorable progress. The black freedom struggle was a grass-roots insurgency. Its animating principle was defiance. Most of its participants wished to overturn not just segregation, but an entire unjust order.
They enjoyed some victories, but they suffered many more defeats. Their insurrection was part of the popular revolt against colonialism and imperialism that swept the world in the latter half of the 20th century. And like many inhabitants of the Global South, they toppled a brutal regime only to face new, more intractable forms of exploitation and subjugation.
Thus King and the radical traditions of black struggle remain relevant to our time.
They live in acts of organized resistance to the violence of American empire. They live in the renegade ranks of Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15 and Standing Rock. They live in the margins of our society and those of other lands, the domain of refugees, the poor and the precarious. They live in the restive energies emanating from the streets of Iran, Palestine and other places where the despised and oppressed have rebelled.
Few of these struggles will figure in the perfunctory King celebrations unfolding across the U.S. today. No matter. Attempts to distort the past or manipulate the present cannot eliminate the forces of opposition. The global crises of racism, interminable war and economic insecurity continue to mount. As they do, humane solutions may emerge not from the high offices of an ostensibly enlightened nation, but from the unruly and subversive elements that lie below.