The Agenda

Usable Pasts

Back in 2008, Thomas Sugrue, a prominent historian of the U.S. civil rights movement, celebrated the radicalism of Martin Luther King Jr.:

The representation of King as mainstream left observers unable to make sense out of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his call for an interracial Poor People’s Movement, and his increasingly vocal denuciations of class inequality in America. King, they contended, had been radicalized or, perhaps, was more calculating in his leftward move, changing his rhetoric to remain a legitimate leader in the eyes of younger, angrier blacks. But as [Thomas] Jackson shows, King was anything but a milquetoast racial liberal or a radical-come-lately. Through a close reading of King’s work, Jackson finds deep currents of anti-imperialism running through King’s thought, going all the way back to his days as a student. He finds a consistent thread of anticapitalism in King’s speeches. And he finds that King was building alliances with the left-wing of the labor movement and allying himself with activists who called for structural change in the economy. King, in other words, was a radical well before he offered his prophetic denunciation of the Vietnam War in 1967 or joined the Memphis sanitation workers on strike in 1968.

Before Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a federal holiday, some conservatives argued that we should instead celebrate a “Civil Rights Day” on the grounds that King, for all his virtues, had been an anticapitalist radical very much outside of the mainstream. Radicalism shouldn’t disqualify such an important historical figure from praise — far from it — but our evolving understanding of King is emblematic of a broader phenomenon. When Sen. Jesse Helms condemned the proposal to establish a federal holiday in honor of King on the grounds that the civil rights leader was an “action-oriented Marxist,” the reply was not, “Yes, he was an action-oriented Marxist, and we ought to celebrate him as such.” Rather, it was to deny that he could legitimately be understood as an ideological figure. A more forthright approach would necessarily have been more contentious and perhaps less likely to succeed, but it would have had the virtue of reflecting King’s complexity. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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