How MLK became a radical

January 20, 2013

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The Radicalization of Martin Luther King
The Real News Network

January 20, 2013

Anthony Monteiro: Obama's presidency has nothing to do with the legacy of King, it's actually the opposite

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.

The revolutionary leader the governing elites would render harmless they name streets after. The number of streets named after Martin Luther King is increasing every year, and about 70 percent of those streets are in southern states. King's home state of Georgia has the most, with over 105 streets. At least 730 cities have named streets after Martin Luther King—only 11 states in the country without a street named after him.

Now joining us from Philadelphia to talk about the radical Martin Luther King and the real significance of his life is professor of African-American studies Anthony Monteiro. He's at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Thanks for joining us, Anthony.

MONTEIRO: Thank you, Paul, for having me.

JAY: So talk about the memory of Martin Luther King. When I go on the internet and I look at Martin Luther King Day, the first thing I see is you should volunteer on that day, do some service for your community for the day.

MONTEIRO: Yeah. Well, that seems to be the way a lot of people think that you celebrate the life of King, by having a day—and the emphasis being on a day of service, rather than a week of service and a month of service, and maybe a year or a lifetime of service, to the causes of peace, antiwar, the fight against racism, and the overcoming of this deepening poverty in our society.

JAY: Now, Martin Lutherc King, certainly near the end of his life, and perhaps earlier, and his language became increasingly radical as he became older.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: One day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you're raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.

And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?" These are words that must be said.


JAY: What was this process of the radicalization of King?

MONTEIRO: Well, you know, Paul, I contend that King's radicalization goes back to his time at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. And, you know, this was right after World War II, and Christian theologians and public intellectuals in general were asking questions about the German churches, Protestant and Lutheran, and their going along with Hitler except for a few people. And one of those people was a pastor, Lutheran pastor, by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who along with others set up an underground church called the anti-Nazi church of Germany. And King encounters Bonhoeffer through his studies at Crozer.

And I am of the opinion that when we look at King's writings, in particular let us say the Letter from a Birmingham Jail and his last really great speech, which was the one at Riverside Church on the war in Vietnam, we hear him using phrases like "the fierce urgency of Now," "procrastination is still the thief of time."


KING: We are confronted with the fierce urgency of Now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.


MONTEIRO: In the Letter from Birmingham Jail he talks about "the tragic misconception of time." So he's always talking about this urgent need for Christians to act. And I think he comes to that position after examining, among other things, the situation in Germany, where Christians espouse their beliefs, but when it came to action, they were either intimidated or felt that time would resolve all of these problems. So I think King begins a radical trajectory pretty much in his years at Crozer Theological Seminary.

And, of course, we see the same thing when he goes to Boston University and he studies systematic theology, which is really a radical turn for that day in the study of theology, where reason is not seen as the opposite and a competitor with faith. But he was trying—as others were doing—synthesize reason with faith, the world with Christian belief, and that the Christians, as King would conclude, are defined not by what they say, but ultimately by what they do in the struggles for justice.

JAY: And this trajectory takes him to a place where he doesn't—if you look at the language of his, you know, last speeches, he doesn't define the struggle as one between good and evil, really, and he certainly doesn't define it as one between white and black. He talks about imperialism as a system. He talks about U.S. imperialism. And he talks about capitalism. He talks about class.

MONTEIRO: Yeah. Well, he never defined the struggle as a struggle between white and black. And good and evil were metaphors, ultimately, for social forces in the society. And he would become more concrete in defining good and evil. Well, evil, of course, was the system of segregation, of the oppression of black people that went back, of course, to slavery. But then, of course, evil ultimately became the system that produces war and produces and reproduces poverty and the exploitation of working people.

So you're absolutely right. That kind of moral framing of the issue was not disconnected from a deep political and economic understanding of, as you put it, the capitalist system.


KING: A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, this is not just. It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, this is not just. The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, this way of settling differences is not just. This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.


MONTEIRO: His life is ended in Memphis, Tennessee, where he is organizing workers. Now, we have to take a step back, perhaps, to really understand the significance of that.

First of all, the South was even viewed by most trade unionists as unorganizable because of the existence of racism and because of the fact that the political and economic establishments of the South not only oppressed black people but prevented workers from organizing. But even deeper than that, if we go back to W. E. B. Du Bois's great work, Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois begins that work—the first chapter is entitled "The Black Worker". And Du Bois is talking about the southern black worker.

So it seems to me that King ends his life in this great campaign to organize the unorganized and to organize the poor.


KING: All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they haven't committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights. . . .

The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.


MONTEIRO: And to me that is a great legacy. And it is a 21st-century legacy. And that is the legacy that we have to celebrate. But more than celebrate, we have to defend it.

JAY: So if you look at how Martin Luther King Day is celebrated now, Michelle Obama, you know, calling on people to volunteer for the day, people get the day off in governments and banks—I don't know about other workplaces; I guess some do—the reason for doing this is because the man had such impact that they have to do something with his historical memory. Speak a bit about that.

MONTEIRO: Oh, yeah. Yeah. That legacy is too powerful for the elites. They have to minimize it. They have to distort it. They have to eviscerate it. They have to cheapen it.

Besides, you know, First Lady Obama calling for people to do service, I am particularly offended by the fact that the president will be sworn in using Martin Luther King's Bible. To me it's a cheap PR trick. This president has nothing in common with King the man, and his presidency is the opposite of the great legacy of Martin Luther King.

You know, King's legacy is a gift not only to black Americans or to America but to humanity. And here we have a president who in many ways is George Bush on steroids—wars in every part of the world, preparation for war, economic wars against nations like Iran, actual wars in Africa, and so on and so forth. This is the very opposite of what Martin Luther King represents.

And therefore, you know, we've got to defend that legacy. And that's part of the battle of ideas that we're involved in at this time.

JAY: Well, this is just the beginning of a discussion. And we won't wait for another Martin Luther King Day to come around, because we believe in voluntary service more than one day a year. Thanks very much for joining us.

MONTEIRO: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


KING: These are revolutionary times. All over the globe, men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.