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Martin Luther King Jr.’s Radical Legacy

Martin Luther King Jr. can serve as a Rorschach test for some people, who see in the civil rights leader’s legacy only what they want to see. Over the years, King’s legacy has been appropriated in service of a politics of “waiting one’s turn” — a politics that marks a striking departure from King’s own activism and the radical struggle for civil rights and beyond of which it was part.

As Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou wrote in Al Jazeera in 2014:

Martin Luther King Jr. is ubiquitous. A federal holiday, a monument and a plethora of schools and streets bearing his name have cemented his presence on the cultural landscape of the United States. Liberals and conservatives alike appropriate King’s language to adorn their political wardrobes and buttress their ideological constructions.

While the popular rendering of King is one of a civil rights leader who now enjoys widespread acceptability in American public discourse, his radical politics and his rough-edged critique of U.S. imperial adventures have been smoothed over. The real King was committed to a democratic socialist vision that germinated from his black church roots. Specifically, there are three pillars of the radical gospel of Martin Luther King Jr. that we should not allow holiday remembrances to whitewash: democratic socialism, transnational anti-imperialism and black prophetic Christianity.

Sekou goes on to explain:

King’s gospel affirmed black resistance as a form of human dignity and rejected forms of Christianity that favored peace without justice and complacency in the face of immorality. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he warned moderate clergy that unless they “recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity.” King draws heavily upon the black Christian social gospel, which emerges out of the history of black suffering in the United States. Although he became the most famous, he was but one of a great host of black Christian socialist witnesses, including the Rev. George Washington Woodbey, the Rev. Richard Euell and the Rev. George Slater Jr.

Read the full piece at Al Jazeera.