by Henry on April 4, 2008

Via “Chris Hayes”:, this _TAP_ “story”: on Martin Luther King’s intellectual legacy is very good. It was only after reading an early draft of Rick Perlstein’s _Nixonland_ (out in a couple of months one month, by the way) last year that I understood how genuinely radical King’s vision was, and how profoundly the ‘mainstream’ American right hated him at the time. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the King is remembered and celebrated as a visionary, but that his actual vision is completely ignored. The story that America likes to tell itself is one where the US successfully met the challenge that King posed. But that story doesn’t do justice to the actual man and his actual arguments.

Update: for an interesting exercise in compare and contrast, look at how “McCain’s version of King in his speech today”:

We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans. But he knew as well that in the long term, confidence in the reasonability and good heart of America is always well placed. And always, that was his method in word and action — to remind us of who we are and what we believe.

stacks up against King’s “actual _modus operandi_”:

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.”

Andrew Golis’ “piece”: on Cornell West and the “Santa-Clausification” of King is also worth reading.

Update 2: “Rick Perlstein”: posts some of the relevant material from _Nixonland_ online. “David Brooks”: take note. I’ll have more on _Nixonland_ closer to publication date; suffice it to say for the moment that it’s a worthy follow-up to _Before the Storm._



Steve LaBonne 04.04.08 at 4:19 pm

Perhaps it’s inevitable that the King is remembered and celebrated as a visionary, but that his actual vision is completely ignored.

That’s what we do in this country to the legacy of radicals who can’t just be slid down the memory hole.

But to me the courage King showed in promoting a genuinely radical vision- and thereby knowingly alienating a large proportion of his former supporters (starting with Lyndon Johnson after King came out publicly against the Vietnam war)- is exactly what marks him out as a truly great man. He could so easily have rested on his laurels, and allowed himself to be co-opted as an establishment celebrity.

He’s still ahead of even our time, but I retain my faith that we’ll catch up to him someday. Maybe not in my lifetime, though.


Doug 04.04.08 at 5:45 pm

Henry, check out Taylor Branch’s biography, too. Not just radical King but where he came from. Parting the Waters is an amazing book.


Luke 04.04.08 at 6:48 pm

Or Nick Kotz’ “Judgment Days” which I finished this morning.

It’s an absolutely fantastic show of the development of MLK and LBJ, focusing on the period between Kennedy and King’s assassination, tracking the divergence between LBJ’s fantasies of social reforms, and King’s shift further outside the mainstream with each turn.

Also, oh-so-highly-readable, without the sacrifice of any of the goodies


Sortition 04.05.08 at 5:28 am

But… the practice of MLK-worship (celebration, scholarship, child and adult education) is in itself anti-radical (whether it is worship of the mainstream defanged version of MLK or it is of his true, radical self). It reinforces the idea that people need “leaders”.

Rather than focusing on ideas, and on the situation, wishes, thoughts and actions of the people, hero worship focuses on certain special individuals, sending the masses to the background. This ideology is the bedrock of our hierarchical, anti-democratic society.

BTW, this is also what is extremely unsavory about the Obama campaign. It is all about him – how different and visionary and articulate and wise and generally great he is – and how he (as someone wrote on this website recently) is going to make us better as well. He is not there to carry out our wishes, he is the sculptor who is going to mold us. He is a leader, we are his followers.


nick s 04.05.08 at 5:40 pm

David Brooks take note.

As if.


engels 04.05.08 at 7:34 pm

Could somebody tell Perlstein that he really needs to get Before the Storm re-issued? I’ve been wanting to read it for ages but the second-hand prices are extortionate…


Angry African on the Loose 04.05.08 at 8:26 pm

I never noticed it before. It has been there for a while. This picture of Martin Luther King Jr on our fridge door. I hardly look at the fridge door, but there it was. Amongst all the fridge magnets and numbers and pictures of the kids. But what made me stop was that the picture was of a white Martin Luther King Jr. My young daughter made this great man white. And I couldn’t be prouder. I think he would be proud. I know she will continue to live his dream.


Person 04.07.08 at 7:35 pm

Oh yes, you just gotta love that whole philosophy (hm, preview not appearing…) about how we’re gonna fix the system with NON-VIOLENT “direct action”, we’re gonna be non-violent, and we’re going to use direct action, yep yep yep that’s how it’s gonna be. We see it in Greenpeace, trumpeting their philsophy of non-violent, non-violent, direct direct action, that’s how they’re going to bring about change.

Never mind that their definition of “non-violent” includes playing deafening sounds on stock exchange floors, boarding ships at sea, and throwing paint at people, that’s okay because it’s non-violent, and it’s direct action.


engels 04.08.08 at 9:09 pm

this is also what is extremely unsavory about the Obama campaign. It is all about him … He is a leader, we are his followers.

Well, he is running for President…

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