Martin Luther King Jr.: America’s all-purpose icon

Robert Jensen


who once branded King a threat to the nation will march today in MLK Day

parades. Cities around the country — even places where King battled segregation

— name streets after him and put up statues. People of all colors invoke his

name, legacy and memory in support of racial justice.


no doubt that this signals an improvement in race relations. But to make King a

symbol acceptable to most everyone, we have stripped him of the depth and

passion of his critique of white America and its institutions. We conveniently

have ignored the radical nature of King’s analysis, and in doing so we have lost

an opportunity to see ourselves more clearly.


Eric Dyson’s important book, I May Not Get There with You, reminds us that

toward the end of his life, King underwent a dramatic transformation from

liberal reformer to radical who believed "a reconstruction of the entire

society" was necessary in the United States. But today, King gets used as

"a convenient political football by conservatives and liberals who attempt

to ultimately undermine his most radical threat to the status quo,"

according to Dyson.


King were alive today, it is difficult to imagine him participating in the

triumphalism and jingoism that is so common, especially around questions of the

"victory" of the United States in economic and foreign policy. I

suspect King would offer a different analysis. Consider this statement from a

1967 speech:


machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more

important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and

militarism are incapable of being conquered."


political "leaders" today preach that "free" markets and

corporate capitalism can bring prosperity to all and that U.S.

"humanitarian" instincts can be a force for peace. King preached a

different analysis of the effects of our economic system and foreign policy.


"glaring contrast of poverty and wealth" that King warned about in

1967 has grown steadily wider. Around the world, people in grassroots struggles

are resisting the corporate globalization that pushes more people into poverty

and hastens the destruction of natural resources. Resistance to various

U.S.-dominated trade regimens goes on daily around the world, usually under the

radar of mainstream news media. My guess is that King would be part of that



the United States is still "the greatest purveyor of violence in the

world," just as King asserted in 1967. Sometimes that violence is through

direct military assaults, such as the Bush administration’s illegal and deadly

invasion of Panama in 1989 or the Clinton administration’s equally illegal and

counterproductive bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. Sometimes we just provide the

weapons and money, such as the ongoing attacks in Colombia being paid for by the

United States under the cover of a phony drug war. My guess is that King would

oppose such violence.


course if King were alive today, no one can know for sure what specific policy

positions he would take. But we can remember the values that energized and

motivated him and the movements of which he was a part, and we can apply those



the incoming Bush administration talks of letting defense contractors line their

pockets with billions more public dollars for an unworkable and unnecessary

missile-defense shield, we might remember King’s assertion that a nation which

spends "more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is

approaching spiritual death."


our unsustainable affluence and orgy of consumption continue to fuel economic

and energy policies that impoverish others around the world and threaten the

very existence of the planet, we might remember that King called for "a

radical revolution of values" in the United States, a "shift from a

thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society."


this MLK Day, many people will feel comfortable talking about King’s dream of a

world where the color of our skin doesn’t matter. But fewer will be so

comfortable talking about his analysis of power and call to "move beyond

the prophesying of a smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm



this MLK Day we should remember that King said our country was on "the

wrong side of a world revolution" of oppressed peoples.


this MLK Day, we should ask: How long can we ignore King’s radical analysis and

still pretend to honor him?


Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He

can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.



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