Shut It Down: Reclaiming the Radical Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The real Martin Luther King Jr. was angry about injustice, radical in his politics and militant in his tactics

The real Martin Luther King Jr. was angry about injustice, radical in his politics and militant in his tactics

On January 19th, politicians from both sides of the isle, corporations and institutions around the country will be celebrating one of the great leaders of this country. Unfortunately, every year the celebration of this holiday feels like a disservice to his legacy. Every year, it feels like Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy has been watered-down and appropriated, used to benefit whatever political motive people may have.

For the past several years, the city of Oakland has had a tradition of gathering citizens to walk around low-income neighborhoods picking up litter from the streets. The same streets where police violence is common place. The same streets where gun violence is a daily occurrence. The same streets where homeless people sleep, where people are being displaced from their homes, where young people are being lost to drugs, where women are being trafficked.

You wonder what King would have thought about those issues, the issues that he was working on during his life. Yet in his absence, we go about our day, celebrating work that happened 50 years ago and remembering that he had this nice dream one night.

And that is a shame. That is a disservice.

We are not celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. by picking up trash while ignoring the fact that black lives are being treated like trash by state institutions. No, we are “remembering” a whitewashed and “Mcdonald-ified” version of King, as someone recently said at a #blacklivesmatter meeting. We are remembering a false narrative, an image of King who simply wanted people to hold hands and light candles.

We are not remembering the radical, militant King who organized to demand justice. We are not remembering the King who called the American government the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” We are not remembering the King who called for a movement that was “nonviolent, but militant, and as dramatic, as dislocative, as disruptive, as attention-getting as the riots.”

But this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2015, things may finally look different. This year, young black leaders in Ferguson and beyond have put out a call to organize a weekend of disruptions to “reclaim” the legacy of Dr. King. To remember that he was nonviolent and motivated by Agape love, but also radical in his politics and militant in his tactics.

Resurrection City

Resurrection City

The Militant King
We all remember the “I Have a Dream” speech, and that speech gets played (out) in every school across America. But we forget that at the time of his murder, he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. We forget that part of the Campaign was an effort to call on poor people of all races from around the country to come to Washington DC and create an encampment on the national mall, and to use this “resurrection city” as the hub of operations for a mass campaign of civil disobedience that would shut down the entire city, to “cripple the operations of an oppressive society.”

Had he not been shot, and had the Poor People’s Campaign gone off in the way he envisioned it, it would have created mass disruptions and inconvenienced a lot of people. And as the #blacklivesmatter movement continues to put pressure on an “oppressive society,” it is imperative for a country that so often uses King as a moral compass to remember that King was not afraid of confrontation, and that nonviolence is not afraid of tension and disruption.

King once wrote that, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

After 500 years of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, redlining and mass incarceration, this country still witnesses the killing of a black man by law enforcement, security guard or vigilante every 28 hours. According to Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” that is about the same rate as lynchings during its peak.

If people feel like the actions that may take place over Martin Luther King Day weekend are causing a disruption, we need to acknowledge that that’s the point.

500 years of progress, and still a murder of a black life every 28 hours. That qualifies as a country that has “constantly refused to negotiate.” And the disruptions and inconveniences are designed to make people uncomfortable, to dramatize this issue and force the country to deal with this epidemic in a real, meaningful way.

For those who say that these actions are causing tension, King wrote that, “we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

For those who say that we should be trying to advocate for changes through legal means such as the courts, King stated during the Birmingham campaign that, “the only way we’re going to break Birmingham is to fill the jails [through civil disobedience].” He also reminded us that, “everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal,” and every thing the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.

For those who say they support #blacklivesmatter but are bothered by the militancy of the movement, King wrote, “I have reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klan, 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

For those who say that young people need to be more patient, King reminded us all that, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well-timed,” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation….. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse kick and, even kill your black brothers and sisters……. then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

#blackbrunch demonstrators

#blackbrunch demonstrators

So if your brunch is disrupted this Martin Luther King Day weekend, if you get caught in traffic because of a blockade, if you are inconvenienced in some way, let us all take that moment to acknowledge that those are the ways in which you can really celebrate the legacy of Dr. King. That moment of inconvenience is simply the turning of the wheels of progress, brought to you by those with the courage to stand up and say, “enough.”

 “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

 If you are in the Bay Area, consider supporting the call from the Anti-Police Terror Project and coming to a Bay Area Spokescouncil for MLK Weekend, culminating in a Jobs and Economy for the People march on Monday the 19th.



  1. Mollie Costello says

    Absolutely brilliant, this is one of the best things I have read in long time, I want to quote basically the whole piece.

  2. samba says

    It’s crucial for folks to realize how focused Dr king’s strategy was. He made very sure that general population ,and the political leadership understood what injustices were being protested,and clear paths to redressing those issues. This did not involve random disruption. He employed disruption strategically, it was goal oriented and coordinated with a larger agenda. Tactics serve strategy, strategy is a means to reaching a goal. It doesn’t matter how hard one hits a nail on the head, if it isn’t positioned to join two boards. And if the boards are not properly organized and positioned a thousand nails won’t make a house .

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