MLK’s Radical Message Must Not Be Lost

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This morning, I read a Dan Rather tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that resonated with me. But when I returned to copy it, the ending seemed different. The passages immediately below, I now realize, were from Rather’s column written at this time last year.

I fear that the elevation of Dr. King to the pantheon of great Americans who have national birthday celebrations has come at a subtle cost. These days almost no public official would dare speak ill of Dr. King. However I worry that this universal acclaim has deadened the radicalism of Dr. King’s message. And by radicalism, I mean that what he espoused was far outside what was then the mainstream. It still is. (emphases mine)

“We must remember that he was a deeply contentious person at the time of his death. Dr. King would not, could not, suppress the moral clarity with which he saw the world. His messages about racial prejudice and social justice were not welcome in most corridors of power. He was a danger to the status quo and many who benefited from it. He not only preached powerfully about the necessity for racial healing and integration. He also issued stirring rhetoric from his pulpit on the need for economic fairness across racial lines. And he was a fierce critic of the Vietnam War.

“To re-read his writings and listen again to his speeches in today’s political climate is to reconnect with the hard truths he eloquently hurled at the American establishment. If he had survived the assassin’s bullet and continued on his life path, I am convinced that he would have remained a divisive figure. I fear that many who now pay homage to his legacy with florid paeans would be singing different tunes if he had spent decades more actively rallying civil disobedience toward the twin causes of racial and economic fairness for the marginal and dispossessed.

“So today, please don’t revere Dr. King the American saint. Please engage with Dr. King as the unique vessel for a message America was long overdue to hear. And please reflect on how that message, with all its unsettling fervor, is still one of great urgency.”

In the 2023 commemorative column published today, Rather includes a video of a “Face the Nation” segment in which he asked Dr. King if he thought there was a danger that the Republican party would become a white man’s party. King replied that he did think it was a danger, and he’d spoken with Republican Negro (sic) leaders who agreed it was a problem that would be bad for the Republicans and for the nation.

Rather reprinted some of the rhetoric from the 1963 “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. King said:

“…we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check” against a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


“America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned…America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt…So we have come to cash this check–a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Rather concludes:

“In honor of Dr. King’s birthday, scores of politicians, companies, and organizations will issue comfortable statements praising his courage or quoting his memorable rhetoric. Far too few will acknowledge the continuing truth of what he said. That truth was widely viewed as ‘radical’ at the time. To some swaths of America, it still is.

“As I tweeted this summer, undoubtedly inspired by some comment in the news at the time, ‘Make no mistake, if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, he would be stigmatized as ‘woke’ and attacked according.'”

What are your views about the commemoration of Dr. King? Do you agree with Rather that the “subtle cost” of this holiday has “deadened the radicalism of his message”? Or, as Rather also implies, is it up to us to try to break through the whitewashing, making certain in this time of promise and danger that the power of Dr. King’s words reaches more people–as the need for them surely persists?


34 thoughts on “MLK’s Radical Message Must Not Be Lost

  1. I question whether my, or anyone’s, views about the commemoration of Dr. King serve much purpose. If anything, they serve to distract from where the focus should be — on the moral wisdom and values he stood for: “We must learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools.”

    Liked by 4 people

  2. My concern today is that if the radical right have their way with the whitewashing of history in our schools, then in another 50 years, will anybody even know or remember what MLK stood for … or any of the other Civil Rights leaders who should be written in stone in the history books? The clock is being turned back into an age of darkness. Who will stop it?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s up to all of us, Jill. I saw a very compelling interview with a Black politician from Louisiana. He pointed out the large numbers of Black potential voters—both those registered who don’t show up and those non-registered. His point was that if the Democrats invest more money in Louisiana and other southern states with large Black populations, they could gain the power to overcome the filibuster and pass the voting rights legislation so sorely needed.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. He makes a good point, Annie. Voter apathy is a huge problem throughout this country, as becomes obvious when you read that 80%+ are in favour of something, yet the politician who is opposed to it wins the election. How to motivate people to overcome the obstacles and VOTE becomes the question for the ages!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Looking outside, I suspect the fact that there is still a Martin Luther King day is driving a large number of the MAGA folk nuts. The important tactic is to keep alive his name and message.
    Actually the Liberal and Democratic forces are still playing far too nice.
    For instance, you have a number of folk on The Right who outright or by code admire Hitler. There is one phrase to start to take them down ‘Malmedy December 1944’. Hit them with that and keep on pressing if they still support Hitler or Nazis.
    Lauren Boebert gifted you prize chance when she stupidly suggested Christ should have had an AR15. Considering the Christian Message and The Passion of Christ that was blasphemy. It was an ideal to push evangelists demand to know if they accepted her statement and challenge them on blasphemy.
    This is a tough war for the soul of the USA, clever sketches on SNL, cartoons in newspapers are not enough. It is time to spread concerns amongst those who are genuine old school republicans. Give them the message that this crop of extremists are not genuine in their beliefs and are most certainly not patriots.
    You do not need stupid conspiracy theories like Qanon. You have the evidence.
    Use their own words against them, and push, push, push. Never give up, never stop until they are down and beaten.
    The soul of the USA is at stake.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Roger, your advice makes a lot of sense, and I think many Democrats are using that message. The problem lies with Republicans who have either lost or never had a moral compass—and are kowtowing to extremists who seem to have no moral fiber at all. If they supported the Insurrection, when everyone saw the torture of Capitol police, they have no souls.

      As I live in hope, I continue to believe that with the help of a diverse, increasingly politicized GenZ, we’ll make our way through this rough period. Black Americans are among the strongest defenders of democracy, and they won’t forget our history. The pendulum swings; we now know more clearly that we can’t take democracy for granted—ever.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Going to the last part first. I always hope, even when it doesn’t make sense. And agree with you. GenZ have grown into a world with a number of freedoms and choices previously not available, I cannot see them allowing those to be taken away.

        Turning to the other first part, and this is where folk start to back away from me (and my wife of nearly fifty years says ‘Yes dear’- in ‘that’ way).
        Although not born during WWII I came into a world still steeped in its times and outlooks. To me these creatures who have taken over the Republican Party need basically to be hauled out and crushed in the arena of public opinion. In maybe what may seem to some brutal, but they started it.
        For instance Boebert and that remark. She should have been hounded over that, constantly, called out over social media and those associated with her, likewise. A constant, remorseless ‘That was blasphemy. Do you publicly recant. Confess’ , until they disown her and she breaks. It may sound cruel but here is a woman who has dangerous opinions on guns, has not passed or taken part in one piece of legislation, has acted like a bar room drunk on the floor of Congress. She is just one
        They need to be broken and ostracised. An example made. Ordinary folk who are republican b y nature need to be distanced from them.
        Yes it is a harsh approach, but this is a war for the soul of the USA. LBJ, Bobbie Kennedy and the like would have understood the approach.
        Tough times Annie, tough measures are needed.
        Best wishes,

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree with you, Roger. We also need a press corps that is forcefully covering the decimation of our national security from within by having these Insurrectionists privy to our secrets. Not one of them should be allowed to serve in Congress. It’s mind-blowing that they are.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. There can longer be acceptance of ‘What does it matter?’ or ‘It will all blow over’. Folk need to realise these extremists will come for them to. There have been some signs of an awakening but there is now required a moblisation against these forces of ignorance and hatred masking as liberty.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. It can’t be stressed enough that “the Liberal and Democratic forces are still playing far too nice — not only with the far right, but with Putin and Russia. For far too long, Joe Biden has far too slow in providing Ukraine with the advanced weapons it needs to defend itself more effectively against Russia’s obscene attacks on civilians (thousands of whom have been needlessly killed) and infrastructure. Against bullies both foreign and domestic, letting them ‘get away with murder’ (without paying a sufficient price) only emboldens them.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. By happenstance, I have said something similar to Annie.
        Being born in the aftermath of WWII and having read much of the history. There are two lessons:
        1. Democracy needs to be constantly and earnestly defended. There can be no complacency.
        2. Once the ‘war’ in any form begins (and sadly they do), then the gloves must come off and the threat taken on blow for blow until it is crushed.

        This action must be taken on the USA homefront, and the banner carriers of MAGA and their Nazi fellow travellers hauled into the public court and subjected to a ruthless cross-examination of their views- no holds barred.
        Brutal? Yes. But they started it.

        Russia is tricky, wars of that nature can escalate across a wider range. Steady support of Ukraine is needed, consistently. If for some reason Russia did win a war of attrition, then support the resulting guerrilla campaign. Break them by degrees (Happened to Napoleon in Spain, and we witnessed how the USSR and China played on the USA’s misery in Vietnam).
        And while we are on the subject, any right-wing politician in the USA who is soft on the war. Turn on them and suggest they are not patriots, slowly by degrees though.
        Dirty Wars?
        They always are. That is why you can never be complacent about Democracy, keeping it is tough work, winning it back is a brutal business.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Mississippi and Alabama go one step beyond. They have a JOINT holiday. They honor MLK and Robert E Lee on the same day. A slave owner who fought a bloody war to keep slaves and the descendant of some of those slaves. Other states also still honor the slave owners on separate days. No doubt there will someday be a holiday honoring Donald Trump in those same states. It is only symbolic, but symbols are important,as is the rewriting of history.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. A good reminder, Joseph. We just saw this Robert E.Lee garbage in Georgia, where they “celebrate” the day after Thanksgiving. That holiday was mentioned by those who opposed having voting in the state’s runoff on the Saturday after. Warnock and the Democrats, represented by Marc Elias’s firm, succeeded in getting the polls open in many counties. It was important. The fight goes on.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes. We must remember his deeply radical messages and keep working towards those ends. I am glad he is honored every year AND I am grateful for folks who remind us about the specifics of his dream for the USA… and entire planet.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. In the story Tom gets his friends to pay him to let them whitewash the fence.
        Early in private, perhaps but he only came out in public when the Greatest Ali planted his flag and was arrested and charged with draft evasion in 1967. Fun fact it was during Ali’s trial that discovery revealed the years long wiretapping of Dr. King’s phones.
        “Dr. King was my great Black Brother, He’ll be remembered for thousands of years to come.” Muhammad Ali

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Vision or mirage? His last speech the night before he died, haunting, prescient. Joni said it best a couple years after “Don’t it always seem to go That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Dear woman, I am hoping to find understanding because I am totally baffled. I was 15, in the BondHill neighborhood of Cincinnati. During the riots a band of us thought breaking curfew would be an idea. Later that evening I was able to burnish my rep by evading a Cincinnati SWAT squad barefoot clad only in swim trunks.
    One good thing about being agnostic is that you can recognize a good story. Man sees injustice and rallies the people to demand change which succeeds creating possibilities. Very biblical. They were always going to kill him and he knew it. Funny thing they are all dead too yet they still work hard as ever. The whitewashing began immediately so you can see for yourself how anodyne today’s MLK is, even McCarthy was able to utter the 35 words MLK ever spoke. Had he lived he would have continued to unite people to overturn injustice and the capitalists and the MIC were next. They, the all powerful they, had to contain the damage MLK was taking the color out of poverty he was waking up all oppressed people.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know he was trying to do that—as was Bobby Kennedy. We might have a very different country today if…though I understand that the white nationalist insurrectionists were not, for the most part have-nots. They’ve just allowed themselves to be persuaded their grievances all stem from any efforts to provide greater equity for Black people.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. IMO this crap white nationalism is ginned up with the false narrative that they are losing something not just to black people. “They” hate anyone they don’t understand when they talk, wears the wrong hat or doesn’t pray out loud. Scientists, Sikhs and sissy are not races although “They” can’t comprehend that there are no human races, we don’t make mules. I think black people receive the brunt of it simply because they can be easily recognize at a distance. The hate comes from existential fear common to everyone which generates anger in some individuals creating a need to lash out. Last time I stubbed my toe I kicked that table so hard my foot will never forget.
        MLK brought results for his people and everyone else. His success inspired Stonewall and Roe. He told us he had been to the mountain top. He told us he would likely not be with us when we got there. He told us he had seen the Promised Land.
        Let the hate unite us, now that women and democrats are exiles with us. The Promised Land awaits.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Patience warrior, we stand with the majority on top of the mountain preceded by men of iron. Their fears are a source of weakness ours a source of strength.
    It has been a Dylan day since sunrise so I’m sharing
    “No reason to get excited”
    The thief, he kindly spoke
    “There are many here among us
    Who feel that life is but a joke
    But you and I, we’ve been through that
    And this is not our fate
    So let us not talk falsely now
    The hour is getting late”
    We will prevail. Hendricks added a guitar.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I think one important point about MLK’s life has been inadvertently ( or intentionally) largely ignored. When he was murdered he was not marching for Negro rights. He was not marching for the vote or housing, etc. for black Americans. He was supporting a union. He was supporting labor rights. Decent wages. Decent benefits. The right to strike. He understood that until economic justice was achieved other gains were illusory. In the end, that is what made him dangerous to the right wing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, Joseph. The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. The powers that be have always used race to divide what could be a vital force of all workers united for the common good. I’m hoping the increasing strength of unions can make inroads now.


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