Remembering Differently

civil_rights_tokenismMartin Luther King, Jr. believed in a rhetoric of equality, yet he fought not merely for social harmony, but racial and economic justice. He sympathized with the Socialist Party. He saw himself as much a part of the Poor People’s Movement as the mainstream Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. He was surveilled and threatened nearly constantly by the U.S. government. When he famously said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he referred to ongoing labor struggles and U.S. military interventions in South East Asia as issues the Civil Rights Movement had to take on by definition. Spurred by the wisdom and dedication of other struggles–Black, Brown and Yellow Power, Anti-war, Radical Feminism, Gay Liberation–he advocated more and more for the interconnectedness of oppression, and the need for inclusive movements which challenged the state apparatus through direct action. He was a far more radical figure than he is ever allowed to be in U.S. memory, and was so because of the deep and changing impact that queers, women, poor and working people, student activists, and organizers in the street had on him.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a perfect person, though his appropriated image is often painted as such by U.S. historical mythology. Let’s remember him today not as a hero, but as human as we are now–one member of a wide-sweeping movement, making the same mistakes, faced with the same setbacks, difficult decisions and doubts which we face daily in our own battles. Let’s remember the women, queers and whole communities whose role in the larger movement continues to be erased. Let’s remember the voices from other movements who radicalized him in ways he may never have been on his own. Let’s remember that even our most admired leaders have as much to learn from us as we do from them.

And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

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