Reclaiming Martin Luther King Jr.’s Radical Vision

Martin Luther King Jr. and others march to integrate schools, Grenada, MS, 1966 (Credit: Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries).

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an address, “Keep Moving from This Mountain,” at Spelman College’s annual Founders Day commemoration on April 10, 1960. Riding high on a wave of national and international prominence due to his activist leadership in Alabama, the young minister was back home in Atlanta speaking to an eager crowd of young Black women. In his address, King paralleled the political fears and apathy that plagued a critical mass of Black America with those of the Israelites departing Egypt under the leadership of Moses.

The profundity of King’s analysis, however, laid in his critique of the pernicious challenges that America was facing on the racial and economic front of the 1960s. King warned the Spelman audience of the abuses of capitalism, practical materialism, and self- aggrandizement while praising the role of Black youth for their avant-garde efforts and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. This speech was consistent with King’s radical socio-political analyses and critiques of social ills addressed in his public presentations and activities. This Martin Luther King Jr., however, is not the person with whom the general American public is familiar.

Historically, King primarily exists as a figure divorced from a holistic narrative that is nuanced, complex, and politically radical. For the past fifty years, however, the presentation of King has continuously suffered from “Santa Clausification” and co-optation by a plethora of entities that encompasses media, conservative political pundits, and school teachers.

Unbeknownst to many, King’s earliest stages of political mobilizing and organizing included carrying a loaded firearm for protection as the Montgomery bus boycott gained substantial ground. Beginning with the evening of January 30, 1956, when King’s home was rocked by a blast of dynamite, he began to carry a gun as the racial tension and threat of violence increased in Montgomery. A young minister with a family, who was thrust into a leadership position, King was torn between the praxis of non-violence and self-defense prior to Bayard Rustin, one of King’s closest confidants and supporters who convinced King to embrace nonviolence and pacifism as modes of protest. King subsequently got rid of his guns and deepened his practical and philosophical commitment to nonviolence. Despite the pleas of Rustin–and even though King ceased to carry a gun–his bodyguards possessed an arsenal. His conflicting views prevailed as he engaged in international politics.1

As a student of Morehouse College, King was exposed to a curriculum that challenged white supremacy internationally and encouraged social change. King benefited greatly from the mentorship of President Benjamin Elijah Mays. Later as a PhD student at Boston University, King’s intellectual developments were heightened as his academic matriculation paralleled global and domestic anti-imperialist change. During this period King gained an immense appreciation for classical African civilization due to his deep appreciation of W.E.B. Du Bois, whose work had a profound impact on the global developments of King’s thinking.

Exemplifying a critical interest and involvement in Africa, which included significant anti-colonial support of African liberation struggle as early as 1957, King subsequently adopted Ghandian principles but with a healthy skepticism. Though King is mainly identified with the Black freedom struggle, he spent a considerable amount of time supporting the efforts of international liberation movements. While serving as Vice-Chair of the American Committee on Africa (ACOC) and as a member of the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa, King provided backing to Sub-Saharan African nations with emphasis in Ghana and Zambia. 2

King also demonstrated his support for liberation movements on the African continent when Kwame Nkrumah invited him to travel to Ghana to attend Ghana’s independence ceremony. Held on March 6, 1957, the ceremony celebrated Ghana’s independence and the newly elected Nkrumah, who was the first democratically elected prime minister of the Gold Coast. During the ceremony King expressed his happiness for Ghana’s triumph with tears of joy.3 He later recalled his experiences at the Ghanaian ceremony in his famous “The Birth of New Nation Sermon” delivered in the spring of 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In this speech, King noted that:

Ghana reminds us that freedom never comes on a silver platter. It’s never easy [. . .] Ghana reminds us of that. You better get ready to go to prison. When I looked out and saw the prime minister there with his prison cap on that night, that reminded me of the fact that freedom never comes easy. It comes through hard labor and it comes through toil. It comes through hours of despair and disappointment.

In November of 1960, King accepted an invitation from Nnamdi Azikiwe to attend Azikwe’s inauguration as governor-general of Nigeria. While in Lagos, Nigeria, King’s relationships and dialogues with African leaders on racism in the United States and the need to eradicate colonialism continued. Furthermore, by the mid-1960s, he had developed a critical global lens and Pan-African alliances that challenged imperialism, which brought him much closer to becoming J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s nightmare of a Black messiah capable of electrifying and uniting the Black freedom struggle, and addressing the needs of the working poor.

Arguably King’s most radical actions and protest came, however, in his direct challenge of the Vietnam War and US military-industrial complex that by 1967 had taken a substantial toll on American soldiers. As evidenced by his speech at Spelman College seven years earlier, King stood at the crossroads of his convictions and challenged the US government and the American public with a call to revolutionize the country’s values. King could no longer display political apathy regarding the war and presented a critique of the imperialist and racist war against the Vietnamese people. King made his stance assertively known in his “Beyond Vietnam” sermon to a Riverside Church audience in Harlem, NY, on April 4, 1967. King stated:

We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. . . The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people.4

Provocative yet passionate, King delivered his speech and established a controversial line of demarcation in the Civil Rights Movement among the leadership of the Big Six, their major financial contributors, and the presidential administration of Lyndon B. Johnson. King received backlash for his stance against the Vietnam War from unreliable allies such as Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Whitney Young Jr. of the National Urban League. Young chided King stating he was “tragically misleading” Black Americans. However, despite his detractors and the Black leadership who betrayed him, King remained principled, held to his position, and replied, “what you’re saying may get you a foundation grant but it won’t get you into the kingdom of truth.”5

So this black history month–as the nation readies for the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination with a plethora of documentaries, articles, lectures and more–let us remember King in his totality. Let us historically re-center the complete breadth of King’s life and contributions to social justice. Let us not forget his radical vision and the sacrifices that he made to the global Black freedom struggle.

  1. Christopher B. Strain, Pure Fire: Self-Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era (Athens & London: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 36-39.
  2.  Samuel T. Livingston. “An Unbroken Bond: The Role of Africa in Martin Luther King, Jr’s Liberation Thought and Praxis” (2016 unpublished manuscript), 29-30.
  3. Ibid, 32
  4.  Martin Luther King, Clayborn Carson, Ralph Luker & Penny A Russel, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Vol IV: Symbol of the Movement, January 1957 – December 1958 (Oakland: University of Cal Press, 1992), 163.
  5.  Cornel West, ed. The Radical King (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015), ix.
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Richard D. Benson II

Richard D. Benson II is an assistant professor in the Education Department at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. Specializing in the History of Education and the Black Freedom Movement, Benson is the author of the award winning book, Fighting for Our Place in the Sun: Malcolm X and the Radicalization of the Black Student Movement 1960-1973 (Peter Lang Publishing, 2015) that examined the linkages and inter-generational continuity of the Black Freedom Movement that grew out of intersects of the social pedagogy and political influences of Malcolm X.

Comments on “Reclaiming Martin Luther King Jr.’s Radical Vision

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    Thank you so much for this. Like Rosa Parks, the Reverend Dr. King always envisioned more radical social change than the children’s books would have us believe. He might not have ever been a member of the Communist Party, but he was anti-capitalist to the core.

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