By Ali Winston
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, shortly before he was to lead a march of striking sanitation workers, part of his Poor People’s Campaign. Forty years later, King’s aborted cross-racial campaign for economic justice is seldom referenced, despite a record wealth gap between rich and poor today. Interest in King’s radical legacy and drive for true change (not the saccharine variety pushed in this year’s presidential race) is nonetheless alive and well. On Jan. 20, more than 400 people attended WNYC’s panel discussion, “Embracing the Radical King: Prophetic or Passé?” at the Brooklyn Museum.
Moderated by WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer and April Yvonne Garrett, the president and founder of the non-profit Civic Frame, the panel featured Princeton Professor Eric Gregory, Brown Professors Tricia Rose and Corey Walker and Professor Patricia Williams of Columbia University’s Law School. “There’s so much more to him than the few lines that are quoted in the reductionist media,“ said Lehrer, who also noted, “really exploring the larger body of Martin Luther King’s work and his relevance today.” Were he alive today, said Williams, King would have focused heavily on issues of voting power, the persuasive power of media and an ‘unraced’ political sphere. King would have expanded his notion of coalition to the new realities of a globalized world, and would have employed his strategy of nonviolent protest on new battlefields.
“Just imagining that makes him much more radical than anything I see happening it today’s world,” said Williams, envisioning King climbing the walls on the U.S.-Mexico border, marching alongside Pakistan’s lawyers, and standing hand-in-hand with Rachel Corrie against Israeli bulldozers.
However, Tricia Rose opined that the father of the Civil Rights Movement would be challenged and vexed by the entertainment industry’s “new minstrelsy” and the cannibalization of African-American culture and a burgeoning culture of violence in inner-city communities.
“I’m not sure he would expect so much capitulation to capitalism and a culture of violence,” Rose said, adding that the gains of the Civil Rights Movement have been met with 40 years of backsliding and sustained resistance by entrenched institutions of power. Speaking on King’s role as a social ethicist, Gregory stressed the inclusive nature of King’s politics, which stand in sharp contrast to contemporary political strategies that target ‘niche’ voters. “King as a Christian represents an incredible mix of traditions. He didn’t have to be un-raced as a Christian, he didn’t use faith to exclude anyone from politics as we see it today,” said Gregory, adding that King never parsed personal charity from social justice.
King’s modern legacy, said Corey Walker, has been edited and presented to the country in a way that obscures the systematic, bottom-up critique of American society that his speeches and writing articulate.
“King challenges not only our comfort level,” said Walker, “[but] the very fabric of our society, a society where the rich continue to exploit the poor [and] where economics becomes the entrée to political power. It’s quite interesting that we’re in a moment where, if you don’t raise $100 million, you’re not a viable candidate for the presidency.