Martin Luther King Jr.’s Forgotten Legacy: Radical Progressivism

Every January, millions of people around the world pay tribute to the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many choose to focus on his famous “I Have a Dream” speech – or at least one portion of it. They focus on the portion, near the end of the speech, where Dr. King speaks of a “colorblind” America – where children are judged for who they are and not the color of their skin. Others choose to focus on Dr. King’s many quotes on love versus hate, painting a picture of a peaceful, earnest man passionate about his faith and his cause.

But to focus solely on this portion of the now-famous speech ignores the rest. To focus on quotes revolving around peace ignore the fact that in his time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was widely viewed as a dangerous radical. In fact, in 1963, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation (then under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover) permission to wiretap his phones, claiming he was a “whole-hearted” communist advised by top-level members of the American Communist Party.

This was, of course, completely false.

“The number one thing I’ve learned in 40 years of doing this, is just because you see it in a top-secret document, just because someone had said it to the FBI, doesn’t mean it’s all accurate,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David Garrow to The Washington Post.

However, it’s no secret that Dr. King was, most definitely, a radical progressive. One need look no further than this overlooked passage of his often-quoted “I Have a Dream” speech:

There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.”

While Dr. King goes on to caution against violence, his use of the word “revolt” does not invoke the form of protest that so many call for today. He does not speak of a protest that will allow the majority to remain comfortable, or to come to change on their own. No – he championed direct action on buses, in libraries, at lunch counters, in public, often.

In his book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?  Dr. King wrote:

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

These aren’t the words of a man who wanted white people to be comfortable. Instead, he challenged the majority to push themselves out of their comfort zone, to learn about the effects of racism, and to actively work towards change.

Near the end of his life, Dr. King’s work focused on addressing economic disparity – something directly tied to systemic racism. He organized the Poor People’s Campaign, which called on Congress to pass anti-poverty legislation focused on helping low-income Americans get access to healthcare, decent jobs, and decent, affordable housing.

Unfortunately, Dr. King was assassinated weeks before the march took place in May 0f 1968. The policies championed by the Poor People’s Campaign remain the causes championed by progressives across the country today. In 1968, 25 million people lived below the poverty line. In 2018, 38.1 million people lived below the poverty line – and 21.4 percent of those were Black.

If we want to honor the legacy, work, and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we would best do so by paying attention to all of his legacy – and that includes continuing to fight for the legislative policies he championed.

Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist and writer whose work has been featured in Yahoo News, Wander No More, Big Easy Magazine, and more. In 2019, she was given the title of “Most Fearless” by The Bayou Brief for her reporting on Drew Brees’ connection to anti-LGBT group Focus on the Family. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_

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