King's legacy

January 15, 1996|By Linn Washington Jr.

A QUICK QUIZ?

Was it Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X who uttered the following warning in 1963: ''The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.''

The specter of revolt to end racism was frequently raised by the fiery militant, Malcolm X. But this warning was actually King's, ironically during his famous ''I Have a Dream'' speech, the address most often cited to show King as a moderate among more militant black leaders like Malcolm X.

Yes, King opposed the ''eye-for-an-eye'' ethic advocated by Malcolm X. But the Apostle of Peace was far from the moderate caricature often presented during the annual observances of his birthday. Before King defined his Dream during that 1963 speech, he praised the ''marvelous new militancy'' engulfing the black community, declaring there would be no ''tranquillity'' until blacks received full citizenship rights -- hardly statements of a milquetoast conciliator.

Myths about King

A mythology now shrouds King's career, and while well-meaning, this mythology marginalizes the continuing import of his message.

While King is seen as a champion of civil rights whose central thrust was social integration, his core concern was actually the attainment of ''silver rights'' -- eliminating the poverty and economic inequity experienced by American citizens of all colors. King's push for interracial populism during the last years of his life probably played a larger role in his assassination than his being a popular black leader.

Confusion about the man and his mission is not a posthumous phenomenon. He was labeled a communist and an Uncle Tom during his career. I used to subscribe to the latter label of King until I began to seriously study his life's work.

An enduring myth is that King was not a militant. But an indicator of the power of his (non-violent) militancy is the near-homicidal campaign of illegal covert actions directed against him by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Top FBI officials considered King to be a greater threat to the status quo than Malcolm X, the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam.

King's focus was not just changing conditions in America. Long before his criticism of the Vietnam War, he condemned the treatment of the poor in Africa, Asia and Latin America. King was an early opponent of apartheid, demanding an international quarantine of racist South Africa in a 1962 statement issued jointly with the then-president of South Africa's African National Congress, Albert Luthuli.

Ending the misery of poverty was a life-long goal of King. Seeing people standing in bread lines during the Depression, he wrote in a seminary-school term paper, helped form his ''anti-capitalist feelings.''

In the months before his 1968 murder in Memphis, where he was participating in a strike by sanitation workers, King was preparing for the Poor Peoples Campaign. This was a protest planned for the nation's capital to push the government to eliminate poverty from the hollows of Appalachia to urban ghettos like Harlem.

In his last Sunday sermon before his assassination, King said, ''if a man doesn't have a job or income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness.''

America had the resources to rid itself of poverty, King said. The question was, did America have the will?

Fighting to end economic inequity is the enduring legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.'s short but historically significant life. Extolling his accomplishments on his birthday is laudable, but working to fulfill his life's mission is the more lasting testament.

Linn Washington Jr., author of ''Black Judges On Justice'' (New Press, 1995), wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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