People who once branded King a threat to the nation will march in MLK Day parades. Cities around the country—even places where King battled segregation—name streets after him and put up statues. People of all colors invoke his name, legacy and memory in support of racial justice. No doubt this signals an improvement in race relations. But to make King a symbol acceptable to most everyone, we have stripped him of the depth and passion of his critique of white America and its institutions. We conveniently have ignored the radical nature of King's analysis, and in doing so we have lost an opportunity to see ourselves more clearly.
Michael Eric Dyson's important 2000 book, I May Not Get There with You, reminds us that toward the end of his life, King underwent a dramatic transformation from liberal reformer to radical who believed "a reconstruction of the entire society" was necessary in the United States. But today, King gets used as "a convenient political football by conservatives and liberals who attempt to ultimately undermine his most radical threat to the status quo," according to Dyson. If King were alive today, it is difficult to imagine him participating in the triumphalism and jingoism that is so common, especially around the supposed "victory" of the United States in the Cold War and the cynical use of people's fear of terrorism to justify wars of control and domination.
I suspect King would offer a different analysis. Consider this statement from a 1967 speech: "When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered." Political leaders—Republican and Democrat alike—preach that "free" markets and corporate capitalism can bring prosperity to all and that U.S. "humanitarian" intervention can be a force for peace. King preached a different analysis of the effects of our economic system and foreign policy. The "glaring contrast of poverty and wealth" that King warned about in 1967 has grown steadily wider. Around the world, people in grassroots struggles are resisting the corporate globalization that pushes more people into poverty and hastens the destruction of natural resources. Resistance to various U.S.-dominated trade regimes goes on daily around the world, usually under the radar of mainstream news media. My guess is that King would be part of that resistance. Today the United States is still "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world," just as King asserted in 1967.
Sometimes that violence is through direct military assaults, such as the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. Sometimes we provide the weapons and money, such as the ongoing repression in Colombia being paid for by the United States under the cover of a phony drug war. My guess is that King would oppose such violence.
Of course if King were alive today, no one can know for sure what specific policy positions he would take. But we can remember the values that energized and motivated him and the movements of which he was a part, and we can apply those principles. As the Bush administration lets defense contractors line their pockets with billions of public dollars for an unworkable and unnecessary missile-defense shield, we might remember King's assertion that a nation which spends "more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
As our unsustainable affluence and orgy of consumption continue to fuel economic and energy policies that impoverish others around the world and threaten the very existence of the planet, we might remember that King called for "a radical revolution of values" in the United States, a "shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society."
On this MLK Day, many people will feel comfortable talking about King's dream of a world where the color of our skin doesn't matter. But fewer will be so comfortable talking about his analysis of power and call to "move beyond the prophesying of a smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent." On this MLK Day we should remember that King said our country was on "the wrong side of a world revolution" of oppressed peoples. On this MLK Day, we should ask: How long can we ignore King's radical analysis and still pretend to honor him?
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas. His most recent book was Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas From the Margins to the Mainstream (2001).