Martin Luther King Jr. would be shocked by America today, but not for the reason you think

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Originally Published: 

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would undoubtedly be saddened by the crisis of police brutality consuming America. He would mourn the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, the death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, and the loss of countless other black lives at the hands of the police.

But it's unlikely that he would be shocked by these events as much as he'd be shocked at how little progress the U.S. has made in reckoning with the vast political and economic problems that he felt underpinned and gave rise to its compulsive violence against black America. Decades after his death, extreme poverty, soaring economic inequality and perpetual war are either unaddressed or worse than during his life. These issues were key to King's radical outlook on the roots of racial progress, and he'd trace the contemporary plight of black youth to their neglect.

Our warped legacy: The King most of America knows has been hollowed out and sanitized. In school curricula and popular media representations, King is depicted as a man with the narrow political mission of racial equality before the law, and his social aspirations are distilled to the hope that "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers," in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. There is little to suggest the enormous politico-intellectual complexity that ranks him, in the eyes of political philosopher Cornel West, the "most significant and successful organic intellectual in American history."

Interracial friendship and civil rights were only one part of King's grand vision for a society governed by fundamentally different values, many of which were derived from the tenets of socialism he hovered around for his adult life. As West discusses in his book Black Prophetic Fire, King began to identify as a socialist as early as his college days, during which he studied Karl Marx. King's wife, Coretta Scott King, said that their first date was the first time she ever met a socialist.

During the earlier stages of his career, King was quiet about this part of his political identity for fear of backlash — calling for both racial integration and the explicit overturning of capitalism was bound to make him too threatening or fringe — but socialism remained important to him, and by the end of his career, it was an open and inextricable part of his dream for a better America.

Associated Press

Over the course of his brief life, King revealed an interest in many "-isms" beyond conventional liberalism and its view of racism. "The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism," he declared in 1967. King devoted great energy to discussing the interconnectedness of these vices and the need for sociopolitical solutions that recognized that they must be combated simultaneously. He tied the funding for the Vietnam War to the scarce resources provided for social services for the working class; he saw the violence perpetrated against the black community in the U.S. as traceable to the logic of imperial violence abroad.  In speeches about "The Other America," he fleshed out how the design of the economy was inextricable from black oppression.

According to West, when the Nobel Prize committee contacted King to notify him that he had won, King said that he didn't deserve the award if Norman Thomas — a socialist, pacifist and six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party — hadn't won a Nobel yet.

A deeper view: It's remarkable that shades of King's radicalism are shorn from his most iconic moments. In mainstream accounts it's rare to see any kind of acknowledgement that "I Have a Dream" was delivered in a speech whose main themes were jobs and freedom. He praises the "marvelous new militancy" of the black community as they inhabit "a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." The speech itself embeds the goal of integration within broader societal transformation — one that requires avoiding the "tranquilizing drug of gradualism."  

Toward the end of his life, King immersed himself in goals beyond traditional civil rights aims that many advocates felt had gone too far. Before his death, King was criticized for his increasing zealotry on ending poverty and war by parts of both the white and black communities, and had lost allies from various quarters of the progressive community, even within his own organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

In many ways, King seemed to be practicing what he preached when it came to valuing integrity over popularity:

I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. ... If it means suffering a little bit, I'm going that way. If it means sacrificing, I'm going that way. If it means dying for them, I'm going that way.

King's radicalism isolated him in his time, but the state of race relations in modern America has unambiguously validated his fears of the inadequacy of narrowly pursuing civil rights. Over the last three to four decades, segregation in education has grown worse; the white-black wealth gap has increased; the American residential landscape is as segregated as ever; trillions are spent on war rather than services for the underprivileged; and the U.S. incarcerates a far greater percentage of its black population than South Africa did under apartheid in a regime that policy analysts consider the new Jim Crow

The civil rights era achieved many great things. But King rightly predicted that if it was not coupled with a deeper reevaluation of how power and wealth function in the U.S., it would not serve as a guarantor of equality. Unless we acknowledge this, it will continue to seem as if the arc of history bends away from justice.