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The radical King
Jonathan Eig: Martin Luther King: Ein Leben. München: DVA, 2024.

The radical King

Martin Luther King Jr.’s political program contrasted with his reputation as a moderate, as a new biography shows. However, this must be seen in historical context – in his ends, the American civil rights hero was always a universalist.

Lesen Sie die deutsche Version hier.

George Orwell opened his 1949 essay “Reflections on Gandhi” with a characteristically arresting declaration: “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” This line came to mind when I first picked up Jonathan Eig’s magisterial new biography ”King: A Life – and not just because Gandhi was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s moral heroes.

The images we most commonly associate with King – such as the iconic photograph of him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech – make him seem more like a symbol than a human being. But King certainly didn’t live a guiltless life, and Eig warns readers at the outset that the book is no hagiography. He covers King’s infidelity, misogyny, and plagiarism. We glimpse a few of the rare occasions when King lost his temper. We see how often his family came second to his work.

Orwell’s point was that the reputations of saints are often embellished or fabricated. But King’s singular moral fortitude; his patience and generosity in the face of immense cruelty; and his exceptional courage are all a matter of public record – and exhaustively recounted in Eig’s book. Unlike advocates for Black Power and separatism like Malcolm X, King always pursued racial unity instead of division. Even during the terror bombing campaigns that targeted black residents of Birmingham and Montgomery, King offered a message of hope and love. When King’s own home was bombed, he called for calm and solidarity instead of revenge: “We must meet violence with nonviolence,” he told the assembled crowd.

The “most dangerous Negro”

But these are the familiar aspects of King’s life, and Eig also wants readers to see “the complicated King, the flawed King, the human King, the radical King.” If readers of “King” could absorb just one point, it would be that America’s greatest civil rights hero was far more radical than his reputation would suggest. Because King is so often counterposed with figures like Malcolm X, there’s a widespread assumption that he was some kind of moderate. This is partly what made him a candidate for secular sainthood in the first place. The view that he was an apolitical figure – a moral icon who stands above petty politics and “no radical,” as a 1957 Time cover story described him – has allowed many political factions to appropriate his legacy. But this is a misreading of King’s basic message and an injustice to history.

King was extremely controversial in his own time, which his contemporary canonization obscures. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover waged an obsessive campaign to destroy King’s reputation and sabotage his relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson. Assistant FBI Director William Sullivan described King as the “most dangerous Negro” in the country. Countless governors, mayors, sheriffs, and editorial writers believed King was a reckless agitator and attention-seeker. The Commercial Appeal in Memphis labeled him the “headline-hunting high priest of nonviolence.” At least that description acknowledged his commitment to nonviolence, which never wavered.

Why was King so hated and feared? After successes such as the Montgomery bus boycott (which set a course for full legal integration in the United States), King’s political project extended far beyond racial justice in the south. In an April 1967 interview with the journalist David Halberstam, King called for a “reconstruction of the entire society” and a “revolution of values.” He thought this might mean a “multibillion dollar Marshall Plan” for urban revitalization and universal basic income. These were radical ideas and prescriptions.

When King sought to expand the campaign for racial justice into a larger movement for economic equality, many erstwhile supporters thought he’d gone too far. Even some of King’s closest allies took issue with his new causes – especially his decision to speak out against the Vietnam War. King publicly opposed the war at a time when just 19 percent of Americans supported withdrawal. He lost the support of editors, northern liberals, and powerful political allies – Johnson’s press secretary said the president had grown “coldly contemptuous” of King over Vietnam; Hoover told Johnson King had become a mouthpiece for the Kremlin.

«Even some of King’s closest allies took issue with his new causes –

especially his decision to speak out against the Vietnam War.»

King wasn’t welcomed by many political and civil rights leaders in Chicago when he brought his message of racial equality and anti-poverty northward. While King strove to build a multiracial political coalition, he became increasingly disillusioned with much of white America. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, King said he was “gravely disappointed with 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.” He said most white people were “unconscious racists.” He emphasized de facto over de jure segregation in places like Chicago, where black people were shunted into poor neighborhoods and bad schools by default. Many liberals who opposed explicit segregation were more comfortable with these divides.

Reforming democracy

None of this should obscure the fundamental universalism of King’s message. In a 1965 interview with Alex Haley, King said “I feel that I must accept the task of helping to make this nation and this world a better place to live in – for all men, black and white alike.” His most famous injunction – to judge others on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin – is still a central element of his legacy.

King wasn’t an incrementalist, but he was an institutionalist. Despite his radicalism, Eig reminds us that he always sought to “reform American democracy, not overthrow it.” As King put it: “We know we can work within the framework of our democracy to bring about a brighter day.” Although King was disillusioned with many white Americans, he never gave in to racial essentialism. He expressed his gratitude that “some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it.”

What does it mean to rediscover the “radical King” today? First, it means recognizing that racial inequality is still pervasive and institutional – particularly in a country like the United States, in which Jim Crow is a living memory and slavery has permanently shaped the social and economic contours of American life. While King would undoubtedly embrace the remarkable strides America has made toward racial equality, he would be horrified by the massive inequities that still exist: the vast wealth gap, higher levels of incarceration and lower levels of education for black Americans, the persistence of de facto segregation in many American cities.

«While King would undoubtedly embrace the remarkable strides America has made toward racial equality, he would be horrified by

the massive inequities that still exist.»

Second, Eig’s account of King’s radical life should make us reassess some of our dearest assumptions about the man. I’ve always invoked King as the towering moral authority for my opposition to identity politics, but now I’m not so sure. Was it “identity politics” for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to insist on black leaders? King endorsed programs that are often dismissed as identitarian and racially divisive today, such as reparations. What would he have to say about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Affirmative Action?

Many forms of identity politics are illiberal – and they often lead to political dead ends – but the political salience of race will be a bedrock reality of American life for many years to come. One reason is the fact that the United States was explicitly and structurally racist for so long – which means race will continue to be an explicit focus today. There’s no getting around it.

Humanism, not tribalism

The critical distinction is what ultimate ends we work toward. When King said he wants his children to live in a world where their race simply won’t matter, he looked forward to a day when humanism replaces all forms of racial tribalism. But anyone who shares this goal has to acknowledge that racism was woven into the fabric of American society for hundreds of years, and its legacies are all around us.

King was the great universalist of the civil rights movement. He expanded his activism to encompass war and poverty because he cared about human dignity and equality – from poor Americans of all races to Vietnamese civilians under American bombardment. In King’s final speech before he was assassinated, he called for a “human rights revolution.” As Eig writes, King’s genius was his “ability to deliver messages that inspired Black and white listeners alike, messages that made racial justice sound like an imperative for all.” King ultimately wanted American society to transcend race, but he recognized that a lot of work would have to be done to make his dream a reality. The same is true today.

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