Over the years, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has become one of the most revered and lionized figures in American history. In fact, according to a 1999 Gallup poll, Dr. King was the second most admired figure of the 20th century.
I’m sure this will not be a surprise for many of us as we have been taught that he was a major force in changing America; a steadfast fighter for civil rights and equality, someone who had a dream that we could move beyond racial differences. While many will be celebrating this image of Dr. King this week, I think it’s important to remember who he truly was: a radical, revolutionary-minded socialist and staunch critic of U.S. imperialism.
Dr. King’s message has become increasingly distorted and folded into the neoliberal agenda to avoid the pertinent discussion of real issues. As a result of this, many have been led to believe that he was merely engaged in a nonviolent struggle against the Jim Crow South that culminated in the reforms of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In reality, his fight extended far beyond this.
Dr. King was deeply troubled by the path the United States was taking and this was made clear to the world in April 1967, when he publicly denounced the U.S. imperialist project of the Vietnam War.
In this speech, he recognized that the problems of racial and economic inequality were directly linked to that of capitalism. He noted that the war was not only an “enemy of the poor” due to its draining of the domestic budget, but that it was also destroying any remaining hope they had.
He stated the government was “taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties…which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
He would go on to label the United States as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” a criticism that many feel still rings true.
As a result of this speech, he received severe backlash. Newspapers across the country denounced him, the White House cut ties with him and his favorability plummeted.
Even in the face of this extreme opposition, he continued further in his struggle. Doubling down on his critique of capitalism he noted that it was “built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad,” and that the only way to solve this was to have a “radical redistribution of political and economic powers.”
This radical redistribution of power is exactly what he had in mind when he was organizing the Poor People's Campaign, a march meant to demand that Congress enact comprehensive anti-poverty legislation.
Dr. King believed in a radically better world and you should too. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
Colt Hutchinson, senior music major