This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the last of President Obama’s administration, takes place a few days before a new administration takes over, one whose election campaign was scaffolded by racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, and economic populism.
Amidst this jarring crossroad in American history we find ourselves living in, many publications offered a nuanced remembrance of the civil rights leader, one that addressed his legacy in fighting for both civil and economic rights, and a reminded us of the many, and deep, linkages between race and class.
At Vox, Jenée Desmond-Harris writes of the march Dr. King was planning before his assasination, the Poor People’s Campaign, calling it the “original Occupy.” She notes:
It’s odd that, when we talk about King, we’re so much less likely to conjure up the belief that arguably dominated his entire worldview, and especially characterized his final months: that people shouldn’t have to live in poverty, and that every single American is entitled to a solid income and a decent place to live.
In Politico Magazine, Joshua Zeitz describes what occurred when King took that dual fight for economic and racial justice from the South to the North:
In the last years of his life, King expanded his vision beyond the former Confederacy and took on a broader struggle to dismantle America’s jigsaw edifice of racial and economic discrimination—a struggle that took him deep into northern states and cities, where onetime allies became bitter enemies. He did so even as he strained to keep a fractious civil rights movement unified, and in the face of unremitting sabotage from federal authorities.
As he explained further, “White Northerners who may have supported the integration of lunch counters and voting rights in the South proved unwilling to forfeit the artificial privilege they enjoyed in housing and labor markets.” Even though, as Zeitz describes, King “embraced a radical economic critique that viewed racism as a cultural touchpoint that prevented working-class white people from acting in their better economic interest.” It’s an observation just as apt five decades later.
King linked poverty to the Vietnam War, which he ultimately came out against, facing a backlash from many of his allies as well as the media. As Matt Pearce describes in the LA Times, “King called the war ‘an enemy of the poor’ that was swallowing the nation’s young men and its resources for antipoverty programs like a ‘demonic, destructive suction tube.'”
And Zaid Jilani, writing in The Intercept, and Jason Sokol, writing in New York Times’ opinion section, remind us of what Jilani describes, borrowing a term from Cornel West, as the “‘Santa Clausification’ of King.”
It is easy to forget that, until fairly recently, many white Americans loathed Dr. King. They perceived him as a rabble rouser and an agitator; some rejoiced in his assassination in April 1968. How they got from loathing to loving is less a story about growing tolerance and diminishing racism, and more about the ways that Dr. King’s legacy has been scrubbed and blunted.
Writing writing in The Root, Kirsten West Savali takes on the emblem of that sanitization, King’s I Have a Dream speech, and places it within the historical context of King’s final years. “Make no mistake,” she writes. “When King told us about his dream, he understood the ‘fierce urgency of now,’ but it took him a few more years to understand how deeply this nation lies to itself about the content of its character.”
These reminders of the aspects of King’s legacy that tend to overlooked are more than an attempt to fully restore the story of King’s life and the issues he fought for. His words belong not just to history but to a present that in many ways is not so far removed from Dr. King’s past.