Great freedom fighters or revolutionaries live two lives: one when they lived and a another after their death.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has suffered the fate of all great revolutionaries. There is the life King actually lived, the ideas he espoused and the actions he took. This life is captured in his surviving speeches, writings, documents of meetings, interviews and in the memories of his loved ones and those who worked with him. And then there is the narrative his enemies have constructed.
King’s enemies, the wealthy white neoliberal rulers of the U.S., hounded, slandered and reviled him during his first life.
Not only that, after his death, they worked to convert him into a harmless symbol. The King whom conservatives and liberals, black and white, canonize is a hollow, shallow, soulless replica of the man who led millions into battle against the “triple evils” — “racism, economic exploitation and militarism” — in the last three years of his life.
This story is not new. Since his assassination, many have sought to unearth and revive the radical King. Everyone knows he opposed the Vietnam War. Countless are aware that he conceived and planned the Poor People’s Campaign. I want to recover a less well-known King, the King who came to advocate and practice a radical blackness. The King who pursued an initiative that paralleled and intertwined with the Poor People’s Campaign — reparations for African Americans.
By 1964, King was already contemplating a massive universal anti-poverty program. What’s important is not his position, but the analysis by which he got there. King began with enslavement and the moral right to be compensated for labor exploitation. After initially claiming that the “bill” exceeds the entire wealth of “this affluent society,” he shifted direction. King argued, “Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages” and “ancient common law” provides “a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another.” He concluded that “payment” should come through “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures” for African Americans.
He reasoned that “the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery” justified his proposed resolution. Nonetheless, in 1964, he backed away from the moral imperative of reparations and instead called for a “gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.” His retreat to a universalist position was rooted in his beliefs that (1) working-class whites had also suffered centuries of exploitation and discrimination and justly deserved compensation; and (2) that the country would not support an immense program to redress, repair and restitute African Americans only.
Four years later, while building the Poor People’s Campaign, King rethought his support for universalist over race-conscious compensatory policies. He became convinced that “civil rights” could not solve the problems black people faced. His experiences during the 1965 Chicago Campaign persuade him that “economic exploitation” was the root of black people’s dilemma. Moreover, his engagement with black power induces him to revise much of his previous ideology and strategy.
In his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here,” King posited, “Black power ... is a call to black people to amass the political and economic strength to achieve their legitimate goals.” As he contemplated abolishing institutional racism, he observed, “The problem of transforming the ghetto is, therefore, a problem of power — a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo.” Between 1965 and his assassination, King was both radicalized and Blackenized.
While recruiting for the Poor People’s Campaign during the last two months of his life, King traveled throughout the rural South advocating reparations. In one speech, he contrasted the government’s conduct toward the freedpeople with its treatment of whites, especially European immigrants. He pointed out that during the same historical moment in which Congress rejected Thaddeus Stevens’ HR 29, the “40 acres and a mule” bill, it gave “away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest” to the railroads, native whites and European immigrants.
Continuing, King argued, “But not only did they give them land, they built land-grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms.”
Going further, he stated, “Not only that, today, many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality.”
This reality pushed King toward a more radical and blacker vision. Alluding to the meaningful portion of his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, King forcefully concluded his address with these words: “Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”
It is this more radical and blacker King, the King who was committed to a redistribution of wealth, to a “gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” including “special, compensatory measures” for African Americans, that our enemies seek to remake into a conservative, or a liberal, in order to blunt his revolutionary edge.