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Digital Subscriptions > Boston Review > 50 Years Since MLK (Winter 2018) > MLK Now

MLK Now

ON FEBRUARY 23, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., took to the stage at a sold-out Carnegie Hall. He had not come to rally the flagging spirits of bloodied civil rights demonstrators, shake loose the pennies of liberal philanthropists, or even to testify to God’s grace. A more solemn task was at hand.

King was the keynote speaker for a centennial celebration of W. E. B. Du Bois’s birth, following remarks by Ossie Davis, James Baldwin, Jack O’Dell, Cynthia Belgrave, Pete Seeger, and Eleanor McCoy. Arguably the greatest political thinker and propagandist black America ever produced, Du Bois spent his last days in relative ignominy in Ghana, his passport canceled by the U.S. State Department in retaliation for anti-nuclear, anti-racist, and socialist politics. Du Bois died on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington, denied the chance to witness the moral authority of the civil rights movement crystallize before the world.

In his address, King nevertheless urged that Du Bois’s life—its committed empathy with all the oppressed and … divine dissatisfaction with all forms of injustice”—had the pedagogical power “to teach us something about our tasks of emancipation.” In King’s judgment, Du Bois had combined the vocations of intellectual and organizer into “a single unified force” committed to the pursuit of justice, resisting both the temptations of wealth and renown that accrue to accommodationist politics, and the mystical authority and catharsis that give racial chauvinism its allure.

King also admonished those who denied that Du Bois—a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in his youth and a member of the Communist Party in his twilight—was a “radical all of his life.” Stating that Du Bois was “a genius and chose to be a Communist,” King insinuated that Americans’ reflexive aversion to political radicalism remained an obstade to critical thinking and good judgment. Spoken barely forty days before King was shot dead on a Memphis motel balcony, the remarks honored Du Bois’s trailblazing politics and, in hindsight, suggest worries King may have been harboring about his own legacy.

Those worries are easy to understand. In the year before King’s death, he faced intense isolation owing to his strident criticisms of the Vietnam War and the Democratic Party, his heated debates with black nationalists, and his headlong quest to mobilize the nation’s poor against economic injustice. Abandoned by allies, fearing his death was near, King could only lament that his critics “have never really known me, my commitment, or my calling.”

Fifty years after his death, we are perhaps subject to the same indictment. As we grasp for a proper accounting of King’s intellectual, ethical, and political bequest, commemoration may present a greater obstacle to an honest reckoning with his legacy than disfavor did in the case of Du Bois. There are costs to canonization.

The King now enshrined in popular sensibilities is not the King who spoke so powerfully and admiringly at Carnegie Hall about Du Bois. Instead, he is a mythic figure of consensus and conciliation, who sacrificed his life to defeat Jim Crow and place the United States on a path toward a “more perfect union.” In this familiar view, King and the civil rights movement are rendered—as Cass Sunstein approvingly put it—”backward looking and even conservative.” King deployed his rhetorical genius in the service of our country’s deepest ideals—the ostensible consensus at the heart of our civic culture—and dramatized how Jim Crow racism violated these commitments. Heroically, through both word and deed, he called us to be true to who we already are: “to live out the true meaning” of our founding creed. No surprise, then, that King is often draped in Christian symbolism redolent of these themes. He is a revered prophet of U.S. progress and redemption, Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or a Christ who sacrificed his life to redeem our nation from its original sin.

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“Genius. This extraordinary issue reminds us that Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of America’s most radical philosophers. Forget the dream, he called for a revolution in values that stood in stark contrast with the nightmare of neoliberalism, permanent war, and state-sanctioned violence. These essays will inspire a new generation to return to the source.” —Robin D. G. Kelley