Make no mistake: Martin Luther King Jr. was a radical.
He fought for a transformational program of racial and economic justice. He opposed the Vietnam War and railed against the rampant militarism of the United States. He proclaimed that “capitalism has outlived its usefulness.” He was assassinated shortly after standing in solidarity with workers in Memphis, who were striking for better pay and safe working conditions.
But radicals are rarely celebrated in their time. And if they are eventually celebrated, it is not for their radical vision.
King’s struggle has been whitewashed for the masses. His sharp critiques of broken systems have been whittled down to their most dull and palatable arguments. His clear and incisive analysis of injustice has been discarded in favor of a historical account which assumes his vision was inevitable, and refuses to acknowledge the painful relevance of his words today.
But this historical malpractice ignores the reality: At the time of his death, King was widely disliked. His nationwide approval rating was 30%. The FBI put him under surveillance and famously attempted to convince him to commit suicide. After his assassination, nearly one in three Americans thought he had “brought it upon himself.”
Within the spectrum of public disapproval, King viewed the white moderate as the greatest threat to his goals. In King’s words: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”
His words ring true today. Black and brown people are still being murdered by the police and imprisoned at higher rates than whites. The world is speeding rapidly towards a climate disaster which will displace millions and disproportionately affect people of color, the poor, the global south and women. In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, half a million people are homeless, millions are housing insecure and millions more are pushed from their homes by predatory real estate firms and the forces of gentrification. Working people are dying or going bankrupt due to the exorbitant cost of healthcare. Children are being held in grossly inhumane conditions on our southern border, deprived of their innocence and human rights. Women of all backgrounds are facing an epidemic of sexual assault, harassment and austere cuts to reproductive health services.
Injustice — of capitalism, imperialism, racism and sexism — is rampant. If you are aware of these grave injustices, and you believe in anything but the complete and total end to those injustices, you are insufficiently radical. If you do believe in the complete and total abolition of injustice, and you are labeled a radical, wear that title with pride.
We have a right to demand radical solutions to radical injustices. We have a right to demand an end to mass incarceration and the beginning of a rehabilitative justice system; an end to the militarization of police; the mass construction of social housing; a Green New Deal; Medicare-For-All; an end to endless wars; the cancelling of illegal and immoral student and medical debt; the cancelling of the illegal and immoral debt held by Puerto Rico; and fundamentally, a society which strips power away from the wealthy, from the white hegemony, from the patriarchy and delivers it into the hands of the masses.
So when Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem, or millions of young people stand together to demand climate justice, or when moms occupy empty homes to protest the lack of affordable housing , your response should not be to advocate for patience and moderation.
Moderation is unacceptable when we are faced with a cruel and unjust world.
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Harry Zehner is the opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.