Nearly every American national holiday involves an element of sanitization. Our national achievements often contain a double history of freedom and oppression, democracy and bondage, liberty and slavery. As Eddie Glaude Jr. recently observed, America is not unique in its crimes, but it is singular in its astonishing ability to forget them. This commemoration-through-forgetting applies to our national memory of the prophets, activists and ordinary people who have struggled for radically egalitarian reconfigurations of American life — especially those who placed critique of social, political and economic oppressions at the center of their struggle.
There is perhaps no other figure more susceptible to our national myth-making than Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to get the impression that the content and legacy of King’s life consisted of a lofty moral philosophy coupled with a charismatic ability to rally a broad majority of Americans to the heroic cause of racial justice. Each year, as King’s holiday approaches, we are treated to defanged portraits of King that paint him as an exceptional individual who inspired Americans to realize more deeply their existing all-American commitments to liberty, equality and opportunity.
This makes it possible for both President Donald Trump and Dodge Ram trucks to recruit King to their causes, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which sought to destroy King’s work of non-violent protest (even authoring a harrowing letter to King suggesting that he commit suicide), now commemorates his legacy on Twitter.
In fact, the real, radical King was a controversial and offensive figure to most Americans, despised for much of his activist life by conservative racists, white Christian churches, and the white liberal establishment. He was deeply critical of the interconnected structures of American militarism, racism, and poverty, which in King’s view were undergirded by capitalist materialism. He was a vocal proponent for a democratically socialist society. He refused the calls of moderates to gradually achieve justice within the confines of unjust laws, insisting that the destruction of racist power required coercion in the form of militant, non-violent protest.
The radical King is a stark contrast to the domesticated King served up each January, one whose legacy involves little more than rousing speeches, dreams of “color-blindness,” and the occasional march. White Christians bear a unique responsibility for the privatization of King’s undeniably Christian radicalism, given their investment in what Johann Baptist Metz dubbed “bourgeois religion,” which ensures that one’s Christianity is preserved from social conflict and discomfort.
While the civil rights movement that King helped to organize did achieve momentous victories, the structural and material realities that King so keenly identified as productive of racism, white supremacy, and violence still plague American life. If we seek to truly honor King’s life, we should accurately represent his trenchant criticisms of a profoundly unjust nation, which are as true for our day as for segregationist America.
The Radical King
Over the course of his life, King’s strategic and political thought drove him to expand the scope of his criticism and activism. Popularized accounts of King’s life often myopically focus on his non-violent civil disobedience campaigns in the deep South in the early to mid-1960s, which were essential in bringing state-sponsored racism to heel and paved the way to black enfranchisement and the overturning of legal segregation.
In fact, King’s civil rights activism in the South awakened him to systemic injustices in America, leading him to develop a deeper critical analysis of America’s social and spiritual sickness — one that seamlessly linked class oppression with racism, poverty and militarism. This fight for racial justice would require a “black revolution” that would move from smashing racial injustice to a full confrontation with the entirety of rotten American institutions.
In King’s words, this struggle was “forcing America to face all of its interrelated flaws racism, poverty, militarism and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that the radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” Thus, in the late 1960s, he turned to the work of exposing and eradicating police brutality, “hidden” segregation in housing and education, systemic poverty, and ever-expanding militarism.
In the last two years of his life, King railed against the catastrophic war in Vietnam, connecting its blatant imperialist violence to the deteriorating living conditions of ordinary people in America. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
King’s decision to condemn the war constituted an unpardonable sin to his liberal establishment supporters. Following his 1967 speech against American intervention in Indochina, the press formed a united front to condemn him, issuing 168 separate newspaper denouncements the next day. The architect of the Great Society, President Lyndon Johnson, fumed about “that goddamned n*gger preacher” who dared to ask for peace in addition to justice.
King’s later years saw a pivot to class which expanded his analysis of the relationship between racism and class struggle. While many know of the year and location of King’s assassination, fewer know that he was in Memphis to organize sanitation workers, urging a general strike to shut down the whole city. King’s now-famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” was no lofty piece of moralism. It was a speech forged in and through solidarity with the labor struggles of Memphis city workers, a meditation rooted in King’s engagements with the victims of capitalist exploitation.
Months before his death, King launched the Poor People’s Campaign, which aspired to become a mass movement for establishing economic and human rights for poor and working people. Organized by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, this multi-racial campaign made concrete material demands on a complacent government subservient to capital, and connected lack of political agency to the absence of economic security.
King also spoke of the labor movement as enlarging the “strength of the nation” at a moment when labor militancy was on the rise. His commitment to reorganizing the foundations of economic power made him a natural ally and advocate of unions and the labor movement, whose struggles were pregnant with the potential for democracy “from below.”
By the time of his death, King was transparent about his full-blown criticism of capitalism and his belief that democracy and democratic socialism were the same thing. King insisted that if the momentum of the civil rights movement was to continue, American society must find a way to achieve economic democracy. What was required was a “radical revolution of values.” The revolution he envisioned would demand “a long and difficult struggle, for our program calls for a redistribution of economic power.”
In the end, King had thoroughly rejected the inbuilt gradualism of white establishment politics and was building working-class power across America through broad multi-racial coalitions. King died a radical anti-capitalist who was resolutely opposed to America’s global imperialist project.
King and the Churches
Retrieving King’s radical legacy is essential for Christian churches. Conservative, moderate and progressive Christians often portray King as a figure who does not demand fundamental changes to the church’s social priorities or its political allegiances. Theirs is certainly not the King who requires us to choose between racial capitalism’s destruction and socialist transformation.
Conservative Christians are mired in a history and theology that rigidly distinguishes between the gospel and social activism. Conservatives have an “iconographic” portrait of Jesus for whom theological truths are only incidentally bound up with political and social struggles of his day. So it is no surprise that conservatives misrepresent King’s message as a theological one in which each individual is equal before God, apart from race.
Erased is his disruptive action, coalition-building, critique of whiteness, and opposition to the imperialist, capitalist state. Instead, King serves to reassure conservatives that the deepest racial injustices are artifacts of the past. Were he alive today, it’s not hard to imagine King observing that this nominal separation of faith from politics has actually created one of the most reliable and enduring blocs in American politics — the Republican-voting white evangelical.
More moderate Christians have made admirable strides in confronting ongoing Christian complicity in racism. Taking inspiration from King, evangelicals like Timothy Keller and Russell Moore, as well as Christians who pit the radical Jesus (or the political church) against “partisan” politics” acknowledge the stain of racism in historical Christian churches and vocally condemn ongoing racism. At the same time, they de-politicize the gospel. In an effort to set Christianity free from compromise with “power” they publicly decry contemporary racism, but caution against overcoming oppression with political solutions and activism.
Despite this welcome prophetic stance on Christian responsibility for racism, the moderate mind does not approach the radicality of King’s vision, one informed by an explicitly political Christianity.
While moderate Christians acknowledge pervasive racism, they tend to prioritize transforming individuals rather than the racist social structures in which individuals are embedded. This de facto individualism is informed by a “miracle motif“: only personal conversion to Christianity and/or the radical practices of the church will establish lasting racial justice. This places racism in the pre-political domain of psychology and spirituality and results in strategies that seek better “race relations” among Christians where sinful prejudices and bad ideas about race are slowly purged.
But by reducing the problems of racism to theological and psychological categories this approach fails to see that racism just is a political project, reproduced through particular institutions and specific policies and rooted in the powerful material interests of a dominant white culture. In an era of “color-blindness,” it now operates in stealth mode, insinuating itself in the day-to-day operations of the segregated housing market, impoverished school districts, discriminatory employment practices, access to wealth, mass incarceration, and policing.
King understood the profoundly structural nature of white racism, and thus adopted a strategy of building mass movements of the oppressed in order to coerce a racist system and then redistribute its power. He understood that the state’s role in racist brutality required the hard work of building multi-racial solidarity and collective agency to force concessions from the state. This analysis differs starkly from the Christian moderate, who is more concerned about protecting the purity of the gospel from politics and encourages suspicion of “partisan politics” or building power.” The Christians who did understand the urgency of King’s agenda did not call people into their churches, nor did they caution against becoming “too political”; they joined King and and the Civil Rights movement in the streets.
Nor do liberal progressive Christians fare much better. Though they are attentive to social realities that disproportionately marginalize minorities, especially people of color, they often fail to reckon in a sustained way with the necessity of building political power through struggle. As theologian and social ethicist Gary Dorrien points out, King’s commitment to building the “beloved community” took for granted that “freedom has no reality apart from power. Power is integral to hope and liberation, integration requires equal access to political and economic power, and freedom is participation in power.”
For liberals, the temptation is to focus on color-blind representation. As long as politicians pay homage to the importance of racial justice and as long as people of color are present in the halls of governance, business, and media, then King’s dream has been sufficiently realized. While legitimate racial grievances may occasionally surface, existing institutions should peacefully mediate inequality through policy and discourage coercive direct action.
The liberal Christian’s ambivalence about the sort of radical politics King espoused is no historical accident. As Daniel Jose Camacho astutely observes, the contemporary political imagination of American liberal Christianity is still dominated by the gradualism of thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr. At first a political radical, Niebuhr grew disenchanted with increasingly marginal socialist politics after World War II, ultimately developing a “realist” theology that construed the love revealed in Jesus’s cross as a negative judgment on human aspirations to collective achievement.
This theology fit comfortably, of course, with the philosophy of political realism, which emphasized “the human inability to fully realize social equality or translate personal ethics into collective ethics, and the need to compromise with the world as it is in a balance of powers.” Camacho cites James Cone’s indictment of Niebuhr in The Cross and the Lynching Tree:
“For Niebuhr, Jesus’s cross was an absolute transcendent standard that stands in judgement over any human achievement. The most we can realize is ‘proximate justice’, which Niebuhr defined as a balance of power between powerful collectives. But what about groups without power? Niebuhr did not have much to say to African Americans… In contrast to Niebuhr, King never spoke about proximate justice or about what was practically possible to achieve.”
In its concrete engagements with civil rights, lynching, and segregation, the theology of liberal realism necessarily cashed out in political moderation. Realism thus revealed itself to be white, as well as productive of the “liberal white moderate” that King himself railed against. Under the sway of Niebuhrian Christianity, King’s invocations of Christian love and brotherhood could be — indeed, had to be — abstracted and uncoupled from his exacting, radical demands for economic, political and social transformation.
As a result, progressive Christians now regularly support politicians of liberal moderation and fail to see their own complicity in contemporary racism. Not only do liberal moderates (often affluent) undermine the efforts of movements from below like Black Lives Matter, they also become reactionary when marginalized and oppressed communities make concrete, material demands that would require the relinquishment of their own privilege. Thus, the liberal mind prefers the safer territory of identity politics without class. The profound intersectionality at the heart of King’s work, which insists on the inseparability of class and social oppressions, is often ignored by liberals, resulting in a weaponized identity politics that pits race against class.
As we approach the 2020 election, a number of liberal Christians who enthusiastically back Democratic candidates with dire records on racial justice. As Jeanne Theoharis writes for the Washington Post, “Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg have presided over policies that perpetuate racial injustice in law enforcement. All have offered glib apologies but have taken no aggressive action to correct the harm.”
Additionally, in response to a call from the Poor People’s Campaign, “several candidates have pledged to call for a presidential debate on poverty, but none have done so — evoking King’s criticism of the “silence of our friends’ as a crucial linchpin to injustice.” The leading centrist candidates, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, reject the need for Medicare for All and universal debt cancellation — policies that would significantly improve the lives of people of color and that have majority support among Americans.
White Moderation/Bourgeois Christianity
What underlies the lukewarm reception of King’s radical legacy among contemporary churches? They prefer peaceful, non-conflictual confrontation with the powers of injustice, and fail to understand that mass social and class struggle is a necessary condition for the fragile civil liberties and political rights enjoyed in capitalist democracies. To varying degrees, they prefer a proximate justice in the face of oppression. Theirs is a firmly quietistic notion of justice which, as Cone pointed out, had it been adopted by blacks in the 1960s, never would have resulted in the militant civil rights movement.
This shared aversion to social change through struggle and direct action was memorably described by King as the attitude of the “white moderate,” who
“…is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
King’s figure of the white moderate bears a striking resemblance to the subject of what Johann Baptist Metz called “bourgeois religion.” Metz first defined Christian life and theology as a form of “interruption,” grounded in the interruptive life of Jesus, and contrasts the “messianic” religion of Jesus to the “bourgeois” religion inculcated by Western and European Christianity.
But where messianic religion is compelled to take sides in social struggles and seeks to realize the universal love of Christianity through solidarity with the oppressed, bourgeois religion reflects the middle-class subject of capitalist modernity: a propertied individual, engaged in market competition, focused on personal concerns and spirituality, and comfortably distant from the marginalized in society. It is, notably, a subject forged within the larger European project of colonizing, enslaving, and dominating black and brown bodies to secure bourgeois privilege.
Rather than a messianic Christianity which breathlessly anticipates the irruption of the Kingdom in history, bourgeois Christianity preaches a religion that is basically a “ceremonial elevation and transfiguration of a bourgeois future already worked out elsewhere.” The bourgeois Christian’s certainty consists in a future that is already assured — one with “abundant prospects and a rich future” — and so develops material interests in avoiding at all costs an interruption to bourgeois life.
The concerns of the white moderate and the bourgeois Christian intersect in their frantic need for a felt sense of law and order, one that never introduces the dangerous possibility that their spiritual comforts depend on the ongoing project of racialization and white supremacy. In direct opposition to the bourgeois fantasy of law and order, King embodied a messianic religion that sought to unveil the state of emergency in American life, demanding an interruption to oppression. His call for the radical redistribution of social power afflicted and continues to afflict the fantasies of bourgeois Christianity.
Certainly, King’s is not the only voice we must heed, nor should we fail to critique King’s limitations. In certain areas, his thought must be deepened and expanded, especially when it comes to gender oppression, feminism and the expansion of reproductive rights, struggles for LGBTQ+ emancipation, and the challenges of ethnonationalist populism.
To revive King’s radical Christian socialist vision, Christians who identify as socialists and leftists have no choice but to build power with new movements for racial, social, political, and economic justice.
Aaron Anderson is managing editor for The Bias Magazine.