Words Mean Things: Reclaiming Martin Luther King Jr. From The Grips of Imperialism

Home News & Politics Words Mean Things: Reclaiming Martin Luther King Jr. From The Grips of Imperialism

King’s spirit is that of a true revolutionary which can never be distorted to the point of no return, and will always live on for those who need it.

In schools across the United States, few Black names grace the pages of curricula as frequently and with more energy than that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. From memorizing his most popular speeches to learning almost exclusively about his “non-violent” tactics, as well as hearing all about his alleged love for racial integration, the Southern activist, writer, and preacher is folded into a choir of respectability and tiresome misconception. 

And while a certain docile, priestly Martin Luther King Jr. is trained into the minds of most Americans from a young age in classrooms, this is not the only space such a Martin exists: hanging on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC., in barbershops and across university campuses, with statues and sculptures in public parks, on the names of popular streets, even in courthouses and government buildings, a ghost of Martin remains memorialized into a peaceful godliness. 

His words are typically cherrypicked — snatched from their context, their intellectual depth, and their usually-searing societal indictments — and turned to a certain kind of motivational quote. In just a few decades since his sinister assassination, King has become a symbol of equality, integration, and lawfulness; all things which he did not get to witness during his tenure on earth, and none of us have yet to witness either. 

When someone becomes larger than life and is violently forced out of life itself, how can one cut through the nonsense to intimate the most accurate legacy? How do we collectively move beyond the intentional distortions of a beautifully dangerous man’s politics and into a space of powerful reclamation? When liberals and conservatives equally throw his name around like it’s worth little, like he’s the next word that means everything and nothing at all, how do we remind people that names, legacies, and words mean things? 

We start by knowing what it is that King himself actually believed, what word he preached, what practice he cultivated, what politics he espoused, and what growth he experienced. One can’t defend a person’s legacy until they actually know that legacy. 

Views on race and color-blindness

Of all the distortions of King’s beliefs, the widely believed notion that King believed in and earnestly called for a “colorblind” society may be the most insidious. A so-called “colorblind” approach to race, which is most evident when one asserts they “don’t see race”, is responsible for its own violent form of racism because claiming to “not see” race or color means one also doesn’t see power, privilege, or violence which shapes our daily lives. 

Many of us have never known the luxury of not seeing race, of not feeling it singe our fingertips at some point in life, and many of the same individuals that claim such racial politics also believe we live in a “post-racial” society (a lie for another day). The belief in a colorblind or post-racial society would assert that mass incarceration, police violence, racist imperialist wars, racialized poverty, gentrification, and all of the racist systemic issues we can see around us are nonexistent, or at least nonracial. To believe such an assertion is to believe in the tooth fairy and, in short, could not be further from the fruits of Martin’s beliefs. 

Individuals usually carefully choose selections from King’s world-famous 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech to uphold the belief that King’s worldview mirrored something colorblind, particularly, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

While the above quote could make some feel warm inside, it is not the totality of King’s words nor his political trajectory. He gave speeches long before the I Have A Dream speech and continued giving them until the day he died. Historians have noted that the feel-good and dreamy words often quoted were likely used intentionally, as the speech was given in front of one of the largest crowds he’d ever see and King wanted to engage as many listeners as possible. 

In other speeches and sermons, however, King is less bubbly. In his 1968 sermon “The Drum Major Instinct”, King states that “…the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice he is forced to support his [own] oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.” 

Here, King clearly shows that he not only sees race but sees through it — that he sees what makes it operate, what makes the white worker tick, and he even makes a connection to US militarism in the next sentence, stating that “not only does this thing go into the racial struggle, it goes into the struggle between nations.”

King rides a Montgomery bus on December 21, 1956, after the US Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of Alabama buses.

Another glaring example that “colorblindness” is, in fact, antithetical to everything King stood for is in the 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here?”:

Now, in order to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now. When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the Negro was sixty percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare he is fifty percent of a person. Of the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one half those of whites. Of the bad things of life, he has twice those of whites. Thus, half of all Negroes live in substandard housing. And Negroes have half the income of whites. When we turn to the negative experiences of life, the Negro has a double share: There are twice as many unemployed; the rate of infant mortality among Negroes is double that of whites; and there are twice as many Negroes dying in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their size in the population. […]

Where do we go from here? First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amid a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values. We must no longer be ashamed of being black.”

While the befuddling of Martin’s racial politics may seem innocent or minuscule to some, in reality, it’s a crucial element of his adoption into the building of capitalism’s hegemonic narration of history. The claim of King’s colorblindness rests in the same vein as the belief that Barack Obama’s presidency was a declaration of a post-racial society, a declaration which is laughable at best and the central theme of violence in honesty. 

Martin Luther King Jr. As Radical Internationalist

In his notable 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King reminds the crowd that “silence is betrayal,” while discussing the need for the masses to be engaged in ending the US war against Vietnam. He states that “there is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam, and the struggle I and others have been waging in America.” 

Then he expands, noting multiple reasons for his anti-war stance: that any programs which claimed to fix Black poverty in America was instantly eclipsed by the war against Vietnam, the hypocrisy that “black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem”, that Black and white youth were unable to go to the same schools despite being forced to fight against the Vietnamese together, that the US government was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City, and so on. 

The speech is a lengthy, hearty, and passionate anti-war diatribe which succinctly uses the cries and hypocrisy of the American ghettos to string together a formidable argument against US imperialist wars. Written by Dr. Vincent Harding, activist, historian, and close confidant to King, the speech is also not without moments of criticism. While the speech remains a critique of capitalism and calls for a war on poverty, there are unneeded and somewhat random appeals to anti-communism in certain sections of the speech. Some historians have attributed this to the Red Scare moment which King found himself, wherein being labeled a communist or publicly supporting communism would have ensured a lengthy prison sentence or worse. 

MLK Jr. with Kwame Nkrumah

Despite its faults, Beyond Vietnam remains a powerful and intense example of King’s complex internationalist politics. However, this speech wasn’t King’s only moment of internationalist clarity. In 1957 King and his family traveled to the newly independent Ghana at the invitation of revolutionary president Kwame Nkrumah, spending almost two weeks with Nkrumah and other revolutionaries from around the world and, as he describes it, “weeping” at the sight of the British flag being lowered and the Ghanaian flag taking its place. 

During a radio interview in Accra, King told listeners that “[Ghanaian independence], the birth of this new nation, will give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world,” claiming that “it will have worldwide implications and repercussions—not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America…” And despite an obvious focus on Ghanaian politics during his time there, this was not the limits of his scope: at his request, King also met privately with anti-Apartheid activists and Nkrumah to discuss their struggles, their methods of protest and action, to both learn from them and impart wisdom to them. 

During this same period, King also traveled to Nigeria, Rome, Paris, Geneva, and London, where he met with Trinidadian revolutionary and scholar CLR James. The experiences of this trip would prove foundational to his politics and understanding of the world, as details from such trip found themselves places in several sermons and speeches afterward. 

For example, just weeks after returning from Ghana King stated in a sermon: “You also know that for years and for centuries, Africa has been one of the most exploited continents in the history of the world. It’s been the “Dark Continent.” It’s been the continent that has suffered all of the pain and affliction that could be mustered up by other nations. And it is that continent which has experienced slavery, which has experienced all of the lowest standards that we can think about, and it’s been brought into being by the exploitation inflicted upon it by other nations.”

Noting the trajectory of King’s politics both on domestic and international issues, professor and writer Dr. Jared A. Ball tells me that, “An honest assessment of the mainstream U.S. press shows how King is clearly preferred dead than alive. Early on King is depicted as the positive antithesis of a scary and dangerous Malcolm X and in 1965 was a top candidate for “Man of the Year” by the Washington Post.” 

However, according to Dr. Ball, the contrasting of King with the boogeyman of Malcolm X was short-lived. “But shortly thereafter, and with Malcolm dispatched himself, King can be seen depicted increasingly as losing focus on civil rights, failing to “stick to his own knitting,” threatening efforts domestically by criticizing the war in Vietnam, capitalism at home, and his increased focus on the failure of white liberals and a Black bourgeoisie to assist the masses of who were not benefitting from “progress” made.

King’s award-winning 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here”, was written in isolation in Jamaica, an island whose appeal to King was both in leisure and politics. In this book, King takes several moments to reflect on Africa and the Black American relation to the continent, it’s cultures and histories and political developments, writing “The Negro is the child of two cultures—Africa and America.” Later he states that “the hard cold facts today indicate that the hope of the people of color in the world may well rest on the American Negro and his ability to reform the structure of racist imperialism from within and thereby turn the technology and wealth of the West to the task of liberating the world from want.” 


Finally, in an indicting passage of the book, King states: “In country after country we see white men building empires on the sweat and suffering of colored people. Portugal continues its practices of slave labor and subjugation in Angola; the Ian Smith government in Rhodesia continues to enjoy the support of British-based industry and private capital, despite the stated opposition of British government policy. Even in the case of the little country of South West Africa we find the powerful nations of the world incapable of taking a moral position against South Africa, though the smaller country is under the trusteeship of the United Nations.”

Still riddled with jarring anti-communism in many places, King’s internationalist perspective is quite clear and constructed precisely nonetheless. And it is because of this anti-war perspective that we must procure his radical legacy from the likes of warmongers and imperialists, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama to John and Megan McCain, to the very institutions that ended his life like the FBI.

The People Around Him

Another point of contention in King’s life and legacy, one which occurs with most people whose mythos becomes larger than their existence, is that those around them get folded into their legacy and are rarely allowed to exact one of their own. 

Firstly, Martin’s assassination was not the only assassination or targeting by the US of civil rights activists. Dozens of activists, organizers, preachers, and leaders of various kinds were violently and often murderously targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, the covert, deadly program which sought to eradicate the US of any progressive leftist movements. 

“King was a target of COINTELPRO from 1963, before the Counter Intelligence Program of the FBI was even officially formed and given its name because King was seen as the “greatest threat” to bring the “Negro to communism,” says Dr. Ball. “19 days before his assassination the Washington Post would accuse him of losing his coming summer march to Stokely Carmichael and the “Leninists” calling him a “threat to national security.” Now his monuments are sponsored by corporations and his increasing radicalism is distilled through spokespeople who were called for as replacements by that same COINTELPRO when they said a “new national Negro leader” would be required once King was neutralized.”

Photo By Devyn Springer

And while Martin was certainly a point of focus for COINTELPRO, he wasn’t the only member of the Luther family who faced death for his radical community organizing. His mother, Alberta King, was assassinated in Atlanta at Ebenezer Baptist Church while playing the organ for Sunday service. Bullet holes from the tragic incident can still be seen in the walls of Ebenezer to this day. 

Then there are sometimes mentioned but rarely discussed activists who upheld Martin in various ways; Coretta Scott King, author, activist, and wife, who bailed him from jail many times, who helped raise the children, who rallied women in churches across the Southern US to march, who would go on to become a vocal advocate for Black women and an early supporter of the TLGBQ movement; the aforementioned Dr. Vincent Harding, activist and historian who wrote a number of King’s most pivotal speeches, later a founder of Atlanta’s Institute of the Black World where he’d befriended Guyanese revolutionary Walter Rodney.

Another name to mention is Bayard Rustin, who in the past few years has earned increased recognition both good and bad. Rustin was a socialist activist and early gay rights leader who many describe as the “architect” alongside A. Phillip Randolph for the famous 1963 March On Washington at which King gave I Have A Dream speech. Rustin could be described as a sort of mastermind of political activism, however, his legacy has been largely displaced due to his identity as a gay man. 

Rustin’s legacy and friendship to King must be looked at even closer, however, because documents show that as early as 1961 Rustin had eerie ties to the CIA, and was even investigated by the FBI while working for the CIA. Some would argue his role was that of an informant from its inception, others would simply suggest that because the FBI felt he was a threat that his work with the CIA was separate. Rustin’s political trajectory would show a confusing, problematic, and ultimately sad twist into neo-conservatism, supporting multiple US imperialist wars, anti-socialism, support of Zionism (including calling for the US to send war planes to assist Israel in 1970), and politically ignorant statements like declaring “gays are the new niggers.” Rustin’s trajectory towards conservatism, which even included international trips funded by the CIA and FBI to spread war propaganda, was even praised by President Ronald Reagan in 1987!

Of course, while Rustin is just one of the many people who surrounded King, exploring his legacy in depth is one way to learn and understand the influences surrounding King — good, bad, or indifferent. 

Photo by Devyn Springer

The task of reclaiming, maintaining, or uplifting the radical legacy of someone like Martin Luther King Jr. is daunting, and many, like scholar Breya M. Johnson, say he’s been assassinated twice, first in body then in legacy. “When I think about Dr. King, I think about how they killed him twice,” says Johnson. “I think about the price we pay when white people take up our “legacy.”

“More importantly,” she says, “I think about how a once deeply anti-war and anti-capitalist, and non-violent man’s work can now be deployed to stifle transformation. Capitalism is also an ideology that shapes how we view the world, and in the case of Dr. King capitalism has co-opted hope— made it individualistic and passive.”

And while it is true that under capitalism the very word hope has been co-opted and turned upside down, we also must understand that this is the nature of the beast we’re fighting. Like Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Assata Shakur, and countless freedom fighters of yesteryear, a legacy is an active thing, a verb, a transgressive appeal to memory which we must form community around and continually raise. 

In the case of Martin Luther King Jr., there is a reason that when I enter the hallways of the Centro Martin Luther King in Habana, Cuba, on a small but revolutionary island, his true spirit fills the air. There’s a reason why his name conjures emotion in Vietnam and resembles pride in Ghana and across the African continent just as much as here in Atlanta, GA. It’s because the spirit of a true revolutionary can never be distorted, misconstrued, or abused to the point of no return, and will always live on for those who need it. 

Devyn Springer is a writer, independent researcher, community organizer, and cultural worker whose work typically focuses on the African diaspora, history, political art, pedagogy, violence, and the space where these things come together. They’re an outcast who like loves Outkast and fried chicken.