The radical King

Perhaps it is a good idea today to remember what Martin Luther King was really about, rather than the sanitized conciliatory sweet little Negro memorialized in this holiday.

America began perverting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message in the spring of 1963. Truthfully, you could put the date just about anywhere along the earlier timeline of his brief public life, too. But I mark it at the Birmingham movement’s climax, right about when Northern whites needed a more distant, less personally threatening change-maker to juxtapose with the black rabble rousers clambering into their own backyards. That’s when Time politely dubbed him the "Negroes’ inspirational leader," as Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff point out in their excellent book Race Beat.

Up until then, King had been eyed as a hasty radical out to push Southern communities past their breaking point — which was a far more accurate understanding of the man’s mission. His "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is in fact a blunt rejection of letting the establishment set the terms of social change. "The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation," he wrote, later adding, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."


  1. bradleybetts says

    “”We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.””

    Exactly. Change never just happens; someone somewhere has to challenge the status quo.

    I always saw MLK as a political and social activist whose aim was to cause disruption through non-violent means in order to open debate. I wasn’t aware there was another version.

  2. says

    And the most oppressed people in the world today are horny men, if I understand correctly. As a feminist oppressor I have no means of truly understanding the little people.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is the King that every high school kid should be obliged to read. The most impressive thing about it is the way it puts the Civil Rights movement squarely in the center of Western progressive thought and theology, from Socrates to Jesus to Neibuhr to Tilich (along with some decidedly non-progressives like Augustine and Aquinas).

    First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    Might we today substitute “male” for “white”?

  4. bjtunwarm says

    Says something when “hasty radical out to push Southern communities past their breaking point” is demanding not to be treated like a member of the human race. It wasn’t MLK who was the extremist, it was the people he was confronting.

  5. Gen, Uppity Ingrate. says

    As always, I hasten to add Nelson Mandela to the conversation. Most excellent man who moved mountains – but not non-violently, as he has been portrayed. For some reason, History seems to prefer agents of change to be portrayed as meek and polite and non-confrontational. I have yet to find a case where this is actually true.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Tabby @2: “And the most oppressed people in the world today are horny men”

    Horny white men with guns.

  7. comradebob says

    Inspired by the memory of Doctor Martin Luther King, I have decided to exercise civil disobedience today by shaving and going to work. My intention is to produce a document, using my own words. I hope everybody has a nice Monday.

  8. says

    Perhaps I’m just a crazy west-coast person, but honestly, his letter – while in an english foreign to me – did not seem an unreasonable position to have.

    If his legacy has been sanitized, maybe it’s because a portion of the country which merely ignored the plights that he fought has come around to his position? Another example would be Samuel Clemens – it’s not like there ever was a majority west of the Mississippi that was scandalized by him.

  9. says

    comradebob, feel free to fuck off and don’t come back. We don’t need another bigot here.

    (If anyone wonders about this, check Thunderdome for ‘comradebob’s’ lovely thoughts about non-pasty peoples.

  10. The Mellow Monkey says


    For some reason, History seems to prefer agents of change to be portrayed as meek and polite and non-confrontational. I have yet to find a case where this is actually true.

    This is profoundly true. People need to read Long Walk to Freedom and King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and see how the world has actually been changed. This is a hell of a lot more important than the cleaned up, public friendly versions and the speech excerpts in history books.

  11. says


    If his legacy has been sanitized, maybe it’s because a portion of the country which merely ignored the plights that he fought has come around to his position?

    No, that’s not why. Try reading the linked article. It all seems reasonable to you now, in 2013. It was a very different climate in the 60s. Black leaders were emerging who people felt were threatening, so King was sanitized to make him look more on the ‘white side’, as it were.

    And no one was ignoring King or the other uppity black people, believe me.

  12. Pteryxx says

    Might we today substitute “male” for “white”?

    We could but it’d be an ass move. It’s still true today, and educated white folks like most of us here who focus on feminism tend to forget about racism and classism. People of color still get most of the prison terms and associated job loss, family breakups, and disenfranchisement; get gunned down by police without the NRA’s happy gun myths as solace; and one of the skeptic movement’s big RL interests – the dismal state of US education – mostly falls on poor school districts with less white folks, just to name a few of the more blatant problems. PoC also suffer disadvantages due to unconscious bias and stereotype threat just like women and girls do.

    I’d rather say ‘the same applies to’ or some such. That quote sure gets pulled out a lot as is.

  13. Steve LaBonne says

    I’m just old enough to remember how widely King was vilified by erstwhile white supporters after coming out in opposition to the Vietnam war. This was followed by his campaign for economic justice, which also raised many hackles and eventually led to his martyrdom. He was a true American radical and this radicalism- when he could so easily have spent the rest of his life basking in the adulation of all the “moderates”- is the true measure of his greatness. We must continue to fight against his transformation into a plaster saint by the intellectual descendents of the very sorts of people who turned against him when he was alive.

  14. Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts says

    Might we today substitute “male” for “white”?

    Or straight. Or Cis. Or all four together.

    I’m unsure if it’s ever actually been anything other than all four together in the last several centuries.
    I wasn’t inculcated in the sanitised version of MLK. I really didn’t know there was one. The man I studied in school during black history month and in social studies was radical and incendiary, not a polite public speaker.

    I can see such a figure being sanitised for US consumption though and it does no good to either his memory nor to contemporary social justice movements to imagine that he was anything other than a radical.

    It’s no wonder that so many people seem to think that change, of the civil rights sort, is an inevitable process of moving forward through time when, in reality, it’s something bloodily won (in one way or another) by some exercise of force.

    It’s also no wonder that so many people are unable to acknowledge that oppressed people, literally considered less than persons by law and by custom and in so many ways without recourse against either, must go so strongly against the status quo in order to even initiate a discourse about change, let alone establish it.

    Or, to be concise, it’s no wonder that so many people cannot acknowledge that the oppressed must be radical*.

    *I find it distressing that the word ‘radical’ probably doesn’t conjure up the same imagery for most people that it does for me. It seems that the word should be struggling to contain the too-long silent and dis-empowered voices of all the people, in all of time, who had to break otherwise cherished social conventions in order to scream so that they would be heard and in order to merely speak in a way so that they would have to be acknowledged.

  15. says

    Wow. Comradebog is really close to getting banned, too — the only thing holding me back is that there are suddenly so many begging for the banhammer, and I’m reluctant to go on a spree.

  16. says

    The Republican establishment is just a little uncomfortable with its shrinking white male base and likes to pay lip service to the sanitized ever-so-mild-mannered version of Martin Luther King, Jr. They even claim he was a Republican, despite the lack of any evidence. It’s true enough that blacks who were permitted to vote were originally inclined to be Republicans because that was the party of the Great Emancipator. But it ain’t Lincoln’s party anymore. The GOP establishment argues that the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had more opposition from Democrats than Republicans, neglecting to point out that the racists Democrats were then welcomed with open arms into the ranks of the GOP, where they remain today.

  17. says


    Wow. Comradebog is really close to getting banned, too

    Yes, he’s quite the piece of work. I’d rather see him banned than someone else in the line, simply because we really don’t need a second house bigot.

  18. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    I think the problem is that people confuse “non-violence”, which may be a moral principle for some but is primarily a tactic, with passivity, politeness, or being nice.

    “Why are you feminists so mean? You should take a lesson from Dr. King!” Because apparently calling someone a misogynist on the internet is way more extreme than sit-ins, boycotts, and just generally putting your ass on the line to be subjected clubs, dogs, hoses, and who-knows-what-the-fuck-else.

  19. thisisaturingtest says

    Yes, comradebob, being told you can have a day off from work is just like being told you’re less than human, and calls for the same sort of “civil disobedience.”

  20. says

    The interesting thing is I remember reading Time’s man of the year issue for a research project and what made it truly fascinating was all of the utterly rabid letters to the editor from people who were deeply insulted that King was chosen.

  21. says

    Back when I was running my company, I used to tell the staff they could come in and work, or go celebrate MLK day – as long as they completely listened to his “I have a dream speech.” That was before I had an HR Director, who pretty quickly hammered me over the head. I thought it was a cool idea, but apparently that was illegal…

    It used to be hard to find a good complete recording of the speech. Now, it’s on youtube. It’s still just one hell of a fucking amazing speech and I still listen to it every year. The thing you notice is how perfectly non-conciliatory and strong it is, without being threatening enough to justify counter-attack. I think Shakespeare would have applauded until his hands bled, King was that good.

  22. says

    The “sanitization” of Martin Luther King, Jr., is definitely an after-the-fact process. I remember very keenly when I was a teenager and heard the news about King being murdered. A married couple who were close friends of my parents dropped in that day for a visit. The woman commented on the day’s big news and said, “Well, it was about time, wasn’t it?” And then she chuckled. They were “nice” people, you know, “salt of the earth” and all that. There’s nothing about being a bigot that requires you to be fat, rude, stupid, and ill-educated. The stereotypical markers might well be missing. Sometimes “civilized” people are perfectly willing to speak atrocities and others to commit them. Thanks to significant progress in our society it is no longer acceptable in “polite company” to mouth off like my parents’ friend, which reduces the exposure of younger people to racist statements. However, in many ways the election and re-election of Barack Obama (and the reaction to it!) demonstrate how much farther we have to go.

  23. Janine: Hallucinating Liar says

    Md, King also believed in economic justice. At the time he was murdered, he was working on the Poor People’s Campaign. The idea being that if there is to be true racial equality, all peoples had to have enough to live on.

    In Mittbot 3000 terms, this makes King one of the takers.

    Now quit masturbating you gun barrel. It is unseemly.

  24. anteprepro says

    Awww. Isn’t that adorable. More gunnuttery. Try here.

    Eventually, King gave up any hope of armed self-defense and embraced nonviolence more completely. Others in the civil rights movement, however, embraced the gun.

    One of the most indelible images of the 1960s is a photograph from Life magazine of Malcolm X looking out a window with a long M-1 carbine in his hands, the rifle pointed up to the sky. For blacks unhappy with the progress achieved by King’s marches, the gun became a symbol of the “by any means necessary” philosophy…

    California passed a law to disarm the Panthers and then Congress, after King was assassinated by James Early Ray, passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 — the first major federal gun control since the 1930s. These laws fueled the rise of the modern gun rights movement, which self-consciously borrowed tactics from the civil rights movement.

    But keep going on and on about how gun control is racist and how MLK lurved some guns. Fucker.

  25. Janine: Hallucinating Liar says

    Also, md, please keep in mind that the militia that so many of you 2nd Amendment absolutists love to go off about. It was not to defend against a tyrannical government; it was to defend a tyrannical government. Those militias were used to put down slave uprisings.

  26. Janine: Hallucinating Liar says

    This quote is from the site that md linked to. It should also point at how dishonest md’s argument is.

    The video talks about how Chris Dodd’s father copied Nazi Gun Laws and made them part of US legislation!

    The fucking Nazis eased the restrictions on guns that the Weimar Republic enacted.

  27. kevinv says

    It used to be hard to find a good complete recording of the speech. Marcus Ranum

    Actually it still is. There’s a pretty good chance the one you link to will get pulled. Other postings of it to youtube get removed. The speech is held under copyright by EMI and the King estate. Sad really that they’re goal appears to milk every penny out of the speech they can instead of spreading it’s ideas far and wide.

  28. md says

    anteprepro, Janine,

    Im confused as to why Im the target of your ire. PZ himself made the subject what MLK was ‘really about’. Why get angry at me for pointing out the obvious: that the man felt his life threatened and wanted to take steps to protect it. He had a few legal guns and wanted a permit for conceal carry, but was denied. Would you have rejected his request?

  29. Rodney Nelson says

    Janine #27

    The fucking Nazis eased the restrictions on guns that the Weimar Republic enacted.

    The Weimar government was concerned about attempted coups by right-wing Freikorps and the Communist Rotfrontkämpferbund (Red Front Fighters’ League) and passed legislation to disarm them.

    After Hitler seized power, he did away with many of the gun laws. However he also outlawed any paramilitary groups not affiliated with the Nazi Party, which meant the SA (Sturmabteilung) was armed and nobody else was.

  30. anteprepro says

    Im confused as to why Im the target of your ire.

    Because you decided to bring the gun control debate into this? Because the article you linked to tied gun control to racism? Because the connection is disingenuous because King, as my article suggests, it may not be the case that King’s views on guns were consistent over time, unlike King’s views regarding the civil rights movement equivalent of accomodationism? Fuck off, asshat.

  31. Janine: Hallucinating Liar says

    anteprepro, Janine,

    Im confused as to why Im the target of your ire.

    Pretending to be surprised is not very becoming. Also, the fact that you used a site that twists historical shows what your intentions are.

    Also, you have a fucking history, md. Your post was not dropped off in a vacuum.

    So, tell me, what do you think of the use of armed militias to put down slave rebellions?

  32. ckitching says

    anteprepro, you might want to try linking that article again. Your original link is defective for some reason.

  33. Janine: Hallucinating Liar says

    Rodney Nelson, I do thank for taking the time to point that out to me. But I already knew that.