Every Martin Luther King Jr. Day, pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle rush to claim a man they would have denounced if he were alive. Conservatives and liberals alike misleadingly quote King to support their agendas, whether that be banning the teaching of black history, telling protestors they are too radical or supporting illegal wars.
Fittingly, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law by a man who opposed every major civil rights law of the 1960s while he was in congress. In a letter to conservative New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson Jr., President Ronald Regan explained that the holiday represented “an image [of King], not reality.”
What was the reality of King that Regan pushed aside? How did this differ from the image?
While textbooks and media regularly depict King as a moderate, in reality he was an unapologetic radical. He came out strongly against the Vietnam war, supported the nationalization of large industries, condemned United States policy towards Latin America as neocolonialism and argued for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
Many of his beliefs led him to butt heads with politicians, the press and the public at large. Following a speech denouncing the Vietnam war, King was smeared by 168 newspapers. Polling showed that only 9% of the U.S. population supported him in his anti-war turn.
Even fellow activists did not want anything to do with King. The NAACP quickly passed a resolution denouncing attempts at linking the civil rights and anti-war movements. Activists such as National Urban League Director Whitney Young and baseball star Jackie Robinson publicly distanced themselves from King. The board of King’s own organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), put out a statement saying they did not carry King’s views on the war.
Towards the end of his life, King developed radical views on capitalism and poverty, largely stemming from his experience with the Chicago Freedom Movement, which targeted discriminatory real estate practices.
Reflecting on the movement in his autobiography, King referred to areas like the impoverished communities of Chicago as colonies. He noted that decisions affecting the community are made outside of the community itself, profits made by merchants and landlords are invested elsewhere, and inhabitants are viewed as sources of cheap labor.
“Something is wrong with capitalism,” said King at an SCLC retreat following the Chicago Freedom Movement. “Maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
When it comes to the modern image of King, irony reigns supreme. The government agency that attempted to blackmail King into committing suicide regularly commemorates him over Twitter. The liberals funneling money into the military-industrial complex preach the importance of following King’s footsteps. The conservatives rolling back voting rights and banning the teaching of Black history quote King to justify their racist agendas.
The whitewashing of King is an example of how history is twisted to reinforce the status quo. By challenging our false conceptions of history, we can better understand the present. By better understanding the present, we can better chart out the future.
Disclaimer: This article in no way reflects the views of The Cauldron and its staff. It only reflects the views of the columnist.