Martin Luther King Jr. was the most hated man in America.
Every year on MLK Day in the United States, and across the globe, people from all political spectrums quote Dr. King’s most famous speeches. We echo that we, too, have a dream for racial equality. We honor his nonviolence, mourn his untimely assassination, and champion what he did for the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, while we do this, we ignore what Dr. King really stood for.
Dr. King did not just peacefully protest for school desegregation. He did not just condemn violence. He also advocated for unions and poverty eradication. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and military spending. He preached that all people had the right to receive health care, to work a job that paid a liveable wage, and to reach economic equality. Dr. King was far more radical than we acknowledge.
He was not just the most hated man in the South. Dr. King was hated across the country: in the “progressive” North and within the government and intelligence agencies. He was attacked in Chicago, hated in Boston, and opposed in Los Angeles. This is because Dr. King was more than our watered-down version of him, standing at a podium or preaching the Gospel. He started the Poor People’s Campaign. He wanted to share democratic socialism with America and end tax cuts for the uber-wealthy. He wanted a world not just without racism, but without war, without poverty, without inequality.
“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and racism. The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” – Dr. King to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) board. March 30, 1967.
“A true revolution of values will lay hand 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.” – Dr. King in a speech against the Vietnam War. Riverside Church, New York City. April 4, 1967.
Yet, over half a century later, his views are still too radical for us to acknowledge. America wants a white-washed, sugar-coated, safe version of their so-called civil rights hero. If everyone understood who Dr. King really was, and what he really wanted to fight for, perhaps he would still be one of the most hated men in America. Perhaps conservative Christians and moderate democrats wouldn’t honor him the same way they do today: in a way that fits their narrative and makes them feel comfortable.
We do not have to agree with Dr. King’s policy propositions. We can debate the military budget and taxes. What we cannot continue to do is pretend he was someone other than who he really was because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We cannot pretend that we would have undoubtedly supported him if we were alive during the Civil Rights Movement. We cannot post him on our Instagram stories on January 18th or a few times during Black History Month and think we have done our part or are showing our appreciation for him.
Unless we acknowledge Dr. King’s fight in its entirety, we ignore his real legacy as a deeply hated radical who fought for profound equality and who was assassinated because of what he stood for. If we are going to look to him for inspiration, or if we want to honor him each year, we must accept the truth about who he was.