Part of my passion for this book comes from how it arrived. In October last year, a long time Austin resident reached out to my partner and I. He wanted to know more about our work with Food for Black Thought. We talked by phone. He encouraged us to keep going. From his own social justice journey, he understood how challenging and exhilarating the work can be. He also seemed to understand how encouragement doesn't always come easily, if at all, on this path.
He said he had books for us to read. In November we received a package. We opened it up to find two of everything carefully included, one for both of us: books, pamphlets, and greeting cards. And so The Radical King: Martin Luther King Jr. came from an inspiring elder I still haven't met in person. This thoughtful act alone made me excited to read it.
Then I couldn't stop reading.
Edited by Cornel West, The Radical King includes selected speeches and writings by King, organized primarily by theme. Part 1 highlights cornerstones of King's philosophy, nonviolence and radical love, followed by the global scope of his analysis in Part 2. Part 3 bears witness to the revolution of non-violent resistance in his works. In closing, Part 4 includes his speeches on community- and coalition- building across racial, class, and geographic difference. In and of itself, each selection is wide-ranging. King discusses various topics from beloved community, to American empire, to the Vienam war, to collective economics.
In American mythology, King is patriotic. He emphasizes nonviolence. He is a critic of Black nationalism. He is a man of faith. His dream of Black and white children together is color blind. The Radical King doesn't include the famous "I Have A Dream" speech. Challenging the "sanitizing" of King, West focuses mainly on lesser-known works and pairs each one with a critical introduction.
King's Radical Dreaming
King did believe in the potential of America. He did emphasize nonviolence. He was grounded in Christian faith. And/but he approached all of these radically. In this volume, King emerges as a reverend who was also a social theorist, scholar, and spiritual activist. His visions were informed by faith and conviction - and by critical analysis. Angela Davis' words serve well here: "Radical simply means 'to grasp at the root'." King grasped at the root of social and economic issues.
By grasping at the root, King unearthed provocative ideas, policy directions, and grassroots actions. He challenged segregation, yes. He also challenged American individualism, overuse of technology, capitalism, and military spending. He countered inaction of the church on issues of civil rights. King critiqued national values and national institutions. Before being rendered a national hero by the state, he was considered a national threat.
Noted throughout The Radical King, surveillance of the civil rights leader underscores his radicalism. Launched in 1956, COINTELPRO, a Federal Bureau of Investigation operation, documented, infiltrated, and disrupted domestic political activities that the government considered extreme. Known organizations under surveillance included the Black Panther Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and communist groups, among others.
Today the FBI acknowledges the existence of COINTELPRO and some of its controversial activities. What is not widely acknowledged by the FBI or in national myth, however, is the surveillance of King, Cesar Chavez, and other figures (more) sanctioned by the state and publicly honored by institutions throughout the country. American mythology sanitizes both King and the historical record.
De-Internalizing the Myth
As I read, I realized how I've internalized the King myth. I appreciated the focus on radical love and nonviolence in Part 1 of the book. In King's work, radical love is not about ignoring race/racism or forgetting history or color blindness; radical love involves understanding the effects of social and economic injustice on our mutual humanity. King clarifies the difference between nonviolence and passivity.
Among the selections, I keep returning to the one titled "Black Power". In this piece, King weighs the meaning of the slogan. He describes conversations - and community organizing - with Stokley Carmichael. While King doesn't agree with many aspects of Black nationalism, he considers how "Black power" can be an empowering statement. He closes with affirmations about Black self-love. What stands out in this piece is deliberation, not opposition. In American mythology, Black nationalism and King are forever opposed. Black power, Black nationalism, and King don't occupy the same space.
I've also keep returning to "The World House". This excerpt from King's book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community discusses what we now call globalization and its impacts. He expresses concern about Western civilization's focus on technology and consumption, noting, "our material abundance has brought us neither peace of mind or serenity of spirit" (p. 79). His words resonate with contemporary mindfulness and minimalism movements; he cites the work of Henry David Thoreau.
Reading in Practice
For a classroom, I could see assigning selections from The Radical King alongside those of Black women or other women of the global majority (aka of color) involved in civil rights movements. For instance, King does not engage deeply with gender or other social identities, compared to race and class. How would The Radical King dialogue with Black feminist works?
Fellow educators, this is a fitting book for courses related to globalization and development, political economy, and other topics noted above.
I'm well aware of other Kings being "unearthed" elsewhere. Media about King's disintegrating marriage, cheating on his wife, and even smoking pretend to reveal his humanity. These stories recognize that King has been sanitized. I admit it. In the course of reading this book, I became curious about King's extramarital affairs. At one point I found myself reading a "man behind the myth" piece in this vein. But these kinds of stories stop short of dismantling the broader myth - because they don't typically engage the breadth of King's work. Nor do pieces about the quote "truth" of MLK engage with systemic issues. Instead of dismantling a myth, they support a caricature (the hypersexual Black man comes to mind).
As with any Black figures who become part of the American story, there's a challenge to witness King's life and work more fully. How do aspects of King's personal life matter in terms of his analysis and actions? Do they matter? I'm wondering how he can be approached as writers and artists sometimes are, in a way that honors connections between their life and work - and disconnections, too.
In this social and political moment, The Radical King is inspiring. In the speeches and writings gathered here, King outlines practices that matter now. I'm looking forward to meditation grounded in social awareness. To pooling resources. To building coalitions that promote social transformation. To beloved community. Reading this book shifted how I'm coming into 2017.
If you read it, I'd love to know your thoughts.
* This is a very cursory description of COINTELPRO. Much more could be said about who was considered extreme and why (for example, in the case of the Black Panther Party); the extent of COINTELPRO's actions; the research, media, and theories surrounding the operation; whether or not it continued after 15 years; and more.