RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

West writes: "If King were alive today, his words would threaten most of those who now sing his praises."

Martin Luther King is shoved back by Mississippi patrolmen during the 220-mile 'March Against Fear' from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. (photo: Underwood Archives)
Martin Luther King is shoved back by Mississippi patrolmen during the 220-mile 'March Against Fear' from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. (photo: Underwood Archives)

Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Radical. We Must Not Sterilize His Legacy

By Cornel West, Guardian UK

04 April 18

If King were alive today, his words would threaten most of those who now sing his praises

he major threat of Martin Luther King Jr to us is a spiritual and moral one. King’s courageous and compassionate example shatters the dominant neoliberal soul-craft of smartness, money and bombs. His grand fight against poverty, militarism, materialism and racism undercuts the superficial lip service and pretentious posturing of so-called progressives as well as the candid contempt and proud prejudices of genuine reactionaries. King was neither perfect nor pure in his prophetic witness – but he was the real thing in sharp contrast to the market-driven semblances and simulacra of our day.

In this brief celebratory moment of King’s life and death we should be highly suspicious of those who sing his praises yet refuse to pay the cost of embodying King’s strong indictment of the US empire, capitalism and racism in their own lives.

We now expect the depressing spectacle every January of King’s “fans” giving us the sanitized versions of his life. We now come to the 50th anniversary of his assassination, and we once again are met with sterilized versions of his legacy. A radical man deeply hated and held in contempt is recast as if he was a universally loved moderate.

These neoliberal revisionists thrive on the spectacle of their smartness and the visibility of their mainstream status – yet rarely, if ever, have they said a mumbling word about what would have concerned King, such as US drone strikes, house raids, and torture sites, or raised their voices about escalating inequality, poverty or Wall Street domination under neoliberal administrations – be the president white or black.

The police killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento may stir them but the imperial massacres in Yemen, Libya or Gaza leave them cold. Why? Because so many of King’s “fans” are afraid. Yet one of King’s favorite sayings was “I would rather be dead than afraid.” Why are they afraid? Because they fear for their careers in and acceptance by the neoliberal establishment. Yet King said angrily: “What you’re saying may get you a foundation grant, but it won’t get you into the Kingdom of Truth.”

The neoliberal soul craft of our day shuns integrity, honesty and courage, and rewards venality, hypocrisy and cowardice. To be successful is to forge a non-threatening image, sustain one’s brand, expand one’s pecuniary network – and maintain a distance from critiques of Wall Street, neoliberal leaders and especially the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and peoples.

Martin Luther King Jr turned away from popularity in his quest for spiritual and moral greatness – a greatness measured by what he was willing to give up and sacrifice due to his deep love of everyday people, especially vulnerable and precious black people. Neoliberal soul craft avoids risk and evades the cost of prophetic witness, even as it poses as “progressive”.

The killing of Martin Luther King Jr was the ultimate result of the fusion of ugly white supremacist elites in the US government and citizenry and cowardly liberal careerists who feared King’s radical moves against empire, capitalism and white supremacy. If King were alive today, his words and witness against drone strikes, invasions, occupations, police murders, caste in Asia, Roma oppression in Europe, as well as capitalist wealth inequality and poverty, would threaten most of those who now sing his praises. As he rightly predicted: “I am nevertheless greatly saddened … that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.”

If we really want to know King in all of his fallible prophetic witness, we must shed any neoliberal soul craft and take seriously – in our words and deeds – his critiques and resistances to US empire, capitalism and xenophobia. Needless to say, his relentless condemnation of Trump’s escalating neo-fascist rule would be unequivocal – but not to be viewed as an excuse to downplay some of the repressive continuities of the two Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.

In fact, in a low moment, when the American nightmare crushed his dream, King noted: “I don’t have any faith in the whites in power responding in the right way … they’ll treat us like they did our Japanese brothers and sisters in World War II. They’ll throw us into concentration camps. The Wallaces and the Birchites will take over. The sick people and the fascists will be strengthened. They’ll cordon off the ghetto and issue passes for us to get in and out.”

These words may sound like those of Malcolm X, but they are those of Martin Luther King Jr – with undeniable relevance to the neo-fascist stirrings in our day.

King’s last sermon was entitled Why America May Go to Hell. His personal loneliness and political isolation loomed large. J Edgar Hoover said he was “the most dangerous man in America”. President Johnson called him “a nigger preacher”. Fellow Christian ministers, white and black, closed their pulpits to him. Young revolutionaries dismissed and tried to humiliate him with walkouts, booing and heckling. Life magazine – echoing Time magazine, the New York Times, and the Washington Post (all bastions of the liberal establishment) – trashed King’s anti-war stance as “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi”.

And the leading black journalist of the day, Carl Rowan, wrote in the Reader’s Digest that King’s “exaggerated appraisal of his own self-importance” and the communist influence on his thinking made King “persona non-grata to Lyndon Johnson” and “has alienated many of the Negro’s friends and armed the Negro’s foes”.

One of the last and true friends of King, the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel prophetically said: “The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr King.” When King was murdered something died in many of us. The bullets sucked some of the free and democratic spirit out of the US experiment. The next day over 100 American cities and towns were in flames – the fire this time had arrived again!

Today, 50 years later the US imperial meltdown deepens. And King’s radical legacy remains primarily among the awakening youth and militant citizens who choose to be extremists of love, justice, courage and freedom, even if our chances to win are that of a snowball in hell! This kind of unstoppable King-like extremism is a threat to every status quo! your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+43 # Benign Observer 2018-04-04 16:18
Militarism, racism, materialism, poverty.

Those are still damn good targets. At every step we should ask, does this candidate (or policy or action) get us closer to one of these goals, or farther away.

There is no reason for us to vote for bad candidates. There are plenty of good people running and next time there will be more.

We need people and policies that help citizens. People are dying. Shot by police. ODed. Uninsured. Drinking contaminated water.

THIS is the richest country in the world?! We are dupes to put up with this. Americans are hungry but we're going to start a war with Russia and China --- using 'low yield' nukes, no less. No wonder Hillary wanted a piece of that.

People need jobs and there are jobs that need to be done. We could use a national daycare system. We need to fix our roads and airports. The elderly need caregivers. We need to plant trees.

There are simple solutions to these problems but our government is corrupt and dysfunctional.

Not only do they neglect the citizens but they endanger the planet, both by waging perpetual war and by acting in ways that make the world economy unstable.

The desire for a US empire is the greatest threat to us. Once again the 'liberal' media is pushing for more and bigger wars. King paid the ultimate price for daring to challenge the machine. Instead of giving lip service to his legacy we should honor him by rising against the four pillars of evil he identified.
+5 # elkingo 2018-04-04 21:03
BO: well said and fairly comprehensive. But don't forget about the external evil, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
+10 # boredlion 2018-04-04 18:23
A truly beautiful, passionate and eloquent piece, Rev. West ! And so infuriatingly true, after all these years of decaying empire.
And, of course, the MSM seems to be still peddling the myth that James Earl Ray was the Rev. KIng's assassin, a bogus cover story which I thought had long been debunked. For instance, by Mr. William Pepper's researches and books (for example, "An Act of State."
+18 # MidwestDick 2018-04-04 18:52
"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," King said.
“I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”
+14 # dotlady 2018-04-04 19:41
Sterilization and iconization of radical leaders of the past is the only version of their truths that white neo-liberals can stomach. Cornel West is right that King would frighten many and trigger FBI and racist reactions again today. He wasn't a saint, but an impassioned man, who saw where we were heading, and tried to warn us. We have arrived there.
+7 # Benign Observer 2018-04-05 10:25
There are a number of rsn commenters who would demonize King as soon as he endorsed Sanders.
+16 # sbessho 2018-04-04 19:52
A small reduction in the "defense" budget would allow many of the persistent issues in our society to be addressed via federal funding. That is the simple solution to many of the intractable problems we face. Why are we not advocating for a reduction in spending for the military?

Countries that have no huge military establishment are still peaceful and secure and can pay for education and health care for everyone. What is so difficult about that?
+17 # Benign Observer 2018-04-05 10:36
Quoting sbessho:
Why are we not advocating for a reduction in spending for the military?
For the simple reason that is where those in power make a good deal of their money.

Polls over the years consistently show Americans want to reduce the military budget, including about a third of Republicans but, like healthcare and gun control, there is little correlation between what the people want and what gets legislated. The correlation is directly proportional to wealth, so the rich get what THEY want.

Conservatives, and sometimes Democrats, can regularly be heard to say we need to get the country's social programs 'under control', meaning we need to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

But we never hear anyone, from either party or on any network, even hint that we should reduce the military budget. They can't pile the money on fast enough, Trump adding to the Pentagon budget and Congress topping that, just casually adding $80 billion that could have funded every student in public colleges or paid a great deal of healthcare or fixed many bridges.

The military is unaccountable, insidious and has a greed that will never be quenched.

That is why.
+9 # sashapyle 2018-04-05 13:05
Beautifully articulated!
+9 # mebemo 2018-04-05 13:57
Unfortunately the last presidential candidate to propose cutting the military budget (by 30%!) was George McGovern. Fear of a similar landslide loss has paralyzed the Democrats ever since.
+9 # rogerhgreen 2018-04-06 10:22
Hopefully Americans are now more aware than they were when George McGovern ran for President. But I could be wrong and "margpark" could be right - that this country has gotten much worse since MLK died. Everyone should read Noam Chomsky's thoughts on these matters. (A good place to start is "". ) He has steadily said the same thing for a long time, over a time pretty much coinciding with MLK saying similar things. And BTW Noam Chomsky and Cornel West (and Chris Hedges and others) have stood side by side more than once on these issues - as plaintiffs in federal court for example.
+18 # margpark 2018-04-04 20:50
This 80 year old UU understands what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for and approves his message 100%. And the woman who put together his message in Memphis for this memorial made sure we were aware of all of it. Other parts of the country I am not sure of. This country has gotten much worse since he died and some of us are fully aware of it and up for a fight.
+8 # elkingo 2018-04-04 21:00
Bravissimo again Cornel! You are again that sole candle in the darkness. The omnivorous Moloch of capitalism, and its grotesque children: racism, poverty, mass murder, misogyny, homophobia, classism etc.etc: every genesis of human suffering and needless death, can gobble even the great MLK's legacy and spirit, by "tolerant repression".
as I think Marcuse called it. "Love is all we need!" and goddamn the world establishment
of whatever superficial political and disingenuous political coloration.
+19 # sashapyle 2018-04-04 22:28
Tell it Brother Cornel! I have been amazed for years how often we hear excerpts of the I Have A Dream speech and how rarely his words about the Viet Nam war have been replayed!
The museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where he was slain gets it right—there is a separate speaker stand for each major speech and one is not prioritized over the other.
Thanks for another brilliant essay.
+16 # PABLO DIABLO 2018-04-05 02:01
Dr, King's speeches were eloquent. He was well spoken. Refreshing today as we haven't had that in too long. He saw the problem. He saw the future. I never had a problem with him OR Malcolm X. They both were visionaries. The church should declare him a "saint".
+12 # Anne Frank 2018-04-05 17:30
The same deep state that silenced King now perverts his legacy.
+2 # Moxa 2018-04-07 11:10
How simple and how difficult it is to be a truly free human being. The things that Martin Luther King fought against--povert y, militarism, materialism and racism are all caused by fear. And who, in this world, does not want to be free of fear? It is the universal will, yet very few know how to achieve it. Fear cannot be eliminated by having more and more, especially at the expense of others. It can't be eliminated by despising others you deem inferior to you. And it can't be eliminated by building fortresses and weapons. All of these tactics are desperate attempts to see the cause of one's fear outside of oneself. What they miss is the fact that fear is born of isolation and separation, and all of these tactics increase isolation and separation. People think, "If only I could be rich enough, or have more than others have; if only I could control this group of people, or these foreign countries, I would be safe." But it doesn't make theme safe, only more afraid because they are more isolated. And so it goes, on and on. MLK was a visionary because he saw the brotherhood of ALL as the only answer to the world's problems. This is indeed as revolutionary as it gets. That's why Jesus himself was likewise a revolutionary. To tell the truth is the only truly revolutionary act, because it is the only source of real change.
+2 # CEB 2018-04-07 11:51
Martin Luther King Jr began his ministry at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama in 1954. Soon he was leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott which ultimately resulted in the desegregation of the bus system. In a speech at the beginning of the boycott he talks about love being ”one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith, "and he called justice “love in calculation.” In describing his call to the ministry he said it came out of an urge to serve God and humanity and later in his Letter From Birmingham Jail he wrote

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don't plan to run for any political office. I don't plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I'm doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.”

In this Easter season think back on those words of MLK whose every action was in service to the God he loved and served and died for, who during his brief life tried in all his actions to bring the Kingdom of God closer to the harsh realities he saw and tried to change. Amen to Cornel West for his eloquent piece.
+2 # DongiC 2018-04-08 00:34
Benign, you are eloquent. American greed will write finis to several million years of evolution. The species cannot and will not ovedrcome its addiction to power. Even the clergy are on board with the American drive to extinction.

Incidentally, where are RR, librarian, dbrize, Nason, Robbee? Are they our trolls? Commenters here now are why I keep returning to RSN. Kudoes to all of you.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.