This January, like the one before and the one after, we will see a flurry of quotes and memes and videos that will largely constitute our celebration of Martin Luther King Day. But this particular January—perhaps more than ever—we need to move beyond that superficial encounter with King to a deeper engagement with his vision, and come face-to-face with the challenge to each of us, and the nation, that Martin Luther King represents. At a moment of peril for social justice, ecology, and democracy, we are called to re-discover the radical and ecological dimensions of King’s legacy.
This month we come to King Day on the heels of a presidential election defined by the most explicit racism, bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia ever seen in modern major-party politics. We come to King Day in the wake of the first presidential election since the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision, which gutted the Voting Rights Act—that touchstone of belated American democracy for which King and many others had risked, and some had given, their lives in Selma and throughout the South.
Fifty years ago, just days after King’s assassination, Harry Belafonte warned, “It would be tragic and perhaps fatal for our nation if we lose the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.” In 2017, with bigotry, racism, and fascism on the rise in Europe and the United States, we can ill-afford to lose track of one of history’s most compelling voices for racial justice, economic justice, freedom, compassion, nonviolence, interdependence, and direct action. As part of our movement-building work for justice and ecology, we are called to transcend the limited and limiting image of King our culture has presented, and encounter the Radical King and the Ecological King who—especially in times of ethical twilight—can serve as a beacon of energy, inspiration, and resistance.
The Superficial King
In popular culture and education, King has been more celebrated than understood. His most radical critiques have been obscured in the effort to present a crowd-pleasing, non-controversial MLK in classrooms and media. These “abridged editions” of his mission have succeeded in softening our memory of King’s prophetic fire, flattening his legacy into a cardboard cutout.
King’s colleague, Jesse Jackson, vividly captured our inadequate conception—what we could call “the Superficial King”—when he said, “we think of Dr. King like he was a big civil rights teddy bear, but this guy was radical.” Missing from our memory is the King who challenged white supremacy and colonialism, war and corporate power. Missing is his systemic analysis of institutionalized oppression, both racial and economic. As scholar Derrick P. Alridge demonstrates with his survey of textbooks, curricula, and teaching on King in high school classrooms, the history taught to our youth tends “to gloss over King’s critiques of American racism, poverty, and the war in Vietnam,” and presents “narrow, sanitized views.”
But it isn’t just high school students who have been kept from King’s real legacy. The radical side of King has been hidden from many of us, known mostly by King’s associates, MLK scholars and biographers, and those who read their works. In popular culture, education, and the media, King’s message has too often been softened, distorted, edited, or ignored.
However, that might be changing.
The Radical King
Despite our tenuous grasp on the fullness of King’s vision, in recent years we’ve seen more and more essays and videos highlighting King’s radicalness and the fact that his prophetic witness has been hidden, articles with titles such as, “The MLK You’ve Never Heard.” This is a welcome development. Demonstrators planning mass actions on King Day weekend, and others, have taken to Twitter, sharing King’s words with hashtags like #ReclaimMLK and #MLKAlsoSaid. This important and emerging appreciation for the true scope of King’s work is exemplified by the recent collection of his speeches and writings edited by Cornel West and aptly titled, The Radical King.
Ultimately the best solution for overcoming the Superficial King is activating the scholar in each of us and returning to the primary sources: King’s speeches, sermons, and writings. When we crack the books, King’s radical fire and sacred vision come flying off every page. When we take the time to listen to a full speech or sermon, the effect of his oratory is amplified, to put it mildly.
Even from his early days in the fifties, King advocated a fundamental transformation of society and economics, at one point declaring, “So, away with our class systems.” Throughout his twelve-year public career he challenged the global structures of capitalism, racism, and militarism. In his last months he gave his most searing indictments of racial oppression in the US, stating, “The thing wrong with America is white racism.” As King saw it, “the black revolution” was “forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws: racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism.”
This January, especially, we need the invigorating example of King’s message and life, his connection-making, his fearlessness and candor, his compassion and unbounded love. But beyond the growing recognition of the Radical King, there is another aspect of his thought that has, up until now, been largely absent, one that is vital as we work to link ecological and social justice movements, reverse the climate crisis, and fight for the future of the planet.
The Ecological King
For the last decade I’ve been presenting an idea, based on my research, that strikes many at first blush as odd: that Martin Luther King was, among other things, an ecological thinker. It took me by surprise at first, too, and developed gradually over many years, but ultimately became unavoidable as I read through his many references to interdependence and interconnectedness, his concern for “the survival of the world,” and his view of reality as a unified field: “Basically, we are one,” he said. “We are a chain. We are linked together, and I cannot be what I ought to unless you are what you ought to be.” The more I explored King’s words, the more it came into focus that interconnectedness is at the heart of his vision. King’s mission for peace, dignity, and justice was an implicit function of his worldview. “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality,” he said.
As part of the Ecological King, there is also an undiscovered Cosmological King, as evidenced by his frequent mentions of the stars and cosmos and invocations of the universe. From the beginning of his leadership King used language that was not only theological, but consistently cosmological. “We have the strange feeling down in Montgomery that in our struggle for justice we have cosmic companionship,” stated King in the summer of 1956. Three months later, addressing a mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, King reflected on the historic Bus Boycott: “These eleven months have not at all been easy… Our feet have often been tired (Yes) and our automobiles worn, but we have kept going with the faith that in our struggle we have cosmic companionship, and that, at bottom, the universe is on the side of justice.”
In addition, King often spoke reverently of the grandeur of the physical universe, “this huge pattern… this vast cosmic order.” In handwritten notes he celebrated “stars, planets, meteors, comets. All this galaxy of wonders.” When King spoke of the urgent need “to develop a world perspective,” he foreshadowed the iconic photographs of Earth from space that would emerge just after his death and usher in the age of ecological consciousness. His interrelated worldview subverted the disconnection of the modern world and anticipated transformational developments in ecology and systems thinking in the decades to follow.
King’s favorite TV program was Star Trek, and his serendipitous meeting with actress Nichelle Nichols (“Lt. Uhura”) caused her to stay on the show, after he impressed upon her the importance of her role, the power of television, the significance of science fiction and of her presence in the show’s portrayal of the twenty-third century.
King’s interest in the cosmos is a fascinating, if little known, aspect of his larger ecological view, which itself has been mostly overlooked. Surely there is meaning for us, whose survival depends on dramatic shifts toward ecology and justice, that one of recent history’s most celebrated social justice advocates was also an ecological thinker. Reclaiming King’s interconnected worldview can provide guidance as we move into the future.
This King Day, as we face the prospect of a chief advisor to the president who is a white supremacist, and the prospect of a Department of Justice headed by an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whose mentality remains on the wrong side of history, whose worldview has yet to cross that famous bridge from Selma to Montgomery, we need the Radical King who said, “We have got to go all out to deal with the question of segregation justice. We still have a long, long way to go.”
In these days of challenge to democracy, let us remember the Radical King who warned, “The day has passed for superficial patriotism.” Let us act with the commitment of the Radical King who said, “We cannot sit idly by and watch [the world] destroyed by a group of insecure and ambitious egotists who can’t see beyond their own designs for power.” And let us rediscover the Ecological King who reminded his listeners so often, “All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated.” As we rally to meet our political moment, we can take hope from the fact that the spirit of King’s vision is embodied in the vibrant resistance manifesting everywhere from Standing Rock, to the Movement for Black Lives, to the global campaign for climate justice. Honoring King’s commitment to justice means recognizing and supporting the women-led, Black-led, Indigenous-led, youth-led, queer-led movements of our time.
May we embrace the work to build a creative and compassionate future with the faith of Dr. King, who once told a rally of students in a packed gymnasium at Fisk University, “No lie can live forever. Let us not despair. The universe is with us.”
Drew Dellinger is an internationally known speaker, writer, poet, and teacher. He is author of Love Letter to the Milky Way, as well as an upcoming book on Martin Luther King Jr. http://www.drewdellinger.org. On Twitter: @drewdellinger, @EssentialMLK, @EssentialKing