By Saswat PattanayakWhenever a progressive leader of the masses, a politically fundamental agent of change, a spirited revolutionary demands replacement of existing social order, the oppressive ruling class never dares confront the person; instead it iconizes him/her after stripping off the necessary radical components. Through an utopian mythification of the leader, the courage to challenge power structure is politically assassinated; and a social validation is granted. In sustaining Martin Luther King Jr. as a legend, his revolutionary roots have been purged into oblivion.
It is true that MLK was a religious preacher and a nonviolent civil rights leader who had aimed for gradual shifts in political empowerment towards American equality. This narrative has worked brilliantly for those in power longing to project MLK’s legacy as one of peaceful reconciliation with power structure. He has been heralded as an intense pacifist preaching moral values of peace, and as an idealist whose dream must globally aspire for racial harmony. A revered clergyman choosing dialogue over struggle; a nationalist for the country than a revolutionary for the oppressed; a believer in scriptures than a rabble-rouser; a composed champion of civil rights, not a class war agitator. Dr King has been labelled as the facilitator for Obama’s White House glory – an example that must end questions on racial and class inequities. A dreamer whose dreams have been fulfilled. A Congressional Gold Medal. A National Holiday. Several hundreds streets and avenues. A quintessential patriotic American.The American power finds this moralist preacher unfailing – an inimitable icon that must eclipse his own evolution into an internationalist. What is left untold about MLK’s life is his story of imperfections, of his constant progressive evolutions, of his critical reflections as an astute revolutionary. Of his victimization as a recipient of ruling class narratives of equality and justice. And despite that, of his profound love and humane eagerness making allowance for endless possibilities. And most importantly, his eventual rejection of fundamental approaches bequeathed to him; of his experiments with truths that started with hopeful pacifications only to end with call for political-economic revolutions.
In classic continuation of imperialistic tradition, the preacher had to be heralded, and the revolutionary was obscured. What is left untold for the school children across the world were his words deemed too dangerous for the American status quo, the words of Dr King that were suppressed by the power structure, because they could keep generations of young Americans awake. Words, not of dreams and hopes, but of positively collective agitational actions. Not just for civil rights inside the country, but MLK’s determined opposition to white man’s wars, his unpatriotic declarations.
More than anyone else, Dr King was acutely aware of the possibility of a retaliation at his call not for domestic reform, but for international revolution. Therefore, he addressed the system on April 4, 1967 in New York: “Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: ‘Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?’ ‘Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’ ‘Peace and civil rights do not mix,’ they say. ‘Are you not hurting the cause of your people?’ they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.”
Dr King’s commitments were indeed not understood, nay, refused to be understood. The ruling power was more keen in establishing him as a mediator, than admit him as an agitator. He had to be christened a believer in peaceful progression, not recognized as an organizer in quest of radical replacement. MLK cleared the air in 1967, just few months before he was assassinated: “The white liberal must rid himself of the notion that there can be a tensionless transition from the old order of injustice to the new order to justice…It is important for the liberal to see that the oppressed person who agitates for his rights is not the creator of tension…We did not cause the cancer; we merely exposed it.”
Revolution is never tensionless, Dr King warned the white power. And the American crisis was not simply race, it was capitalism, he concluded – a declaration that is still considered too dangerous to be taught through history textbooks. Dr King thundered: “…(we) demand a restructuring of the architecture of American society…When you look at it, (integrating public places) did not cost the nation one penny. It didn’t cost businessmen one penny. In fact, it helped businessmen out. Even the right to vote didn’t cost the nation anything to guarantee…Now what I want you to see is that we are now making demands that will cost the nation something. You can’t talk about solving economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You are really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folks then. You are messing Wall Street. You are messing with captains of industry..in other words, we are dealing with class issues….something is wrong with the economic system of our nation…It means that something is wrong with capitalism.”
Dr King not only had dreams. He also had revolutionary economic plans to fulfill them. And his plans certainly did not include presiding over capitalism from inside the White House.