Re-Meeting an Icon

The Radical King, by Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, (Beacon Press), 320 pages, release date 13 January, 2015

Let me just say off the top that The Radical King is a book that belongs on the shelves of anyone with an interest in politics, recent history, social movements, or faith. King is a well-know figure, but the public perception of his life is sadly incomplete. The King we hear about most often is gentle and all-forgiving, concerned exclusively with issues of race.

The real King was a very different man, indeed. One of the 20th Century’s great “what ifs” is “what would have happened if King hadn’t been assassinated?” At the time of his death, his view had broadened to a focus on economic justice. He’d come out as opposed to the war in Viet Nam because of the way existing economic and political structures resulted in its being fought primarily by the poor and by people of color.

He’d worked on racial justice, not just in the south, but also in the midwest—and had found the midwestern struggle even harder than the southern one in many ways. Because inequality was so firmly encoded in southern law, it was easy to make it visible to the nation. Jim Crow, separate white and colored facilities, segregated schools—all these were undeniable markers of a systematic injustice.

In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr., (and the thousands of committed individuals who worked with him) launched the Chicago Freedom Movement, focused primarily on ending housing segregation in that city. That campaign was one of the least successful of King’s career. A primary cause of this failure was that while much of Chicago was as segregated as the deep south, that segregation wasn’t encoded in law. And because it was de facto, rather than de jure, it was much harder to galvanize the conscience of the nation. The south had its Bull Connors, who embodied the worst of racism before television cameras. Chicago didn’t have an obvious Bull Connor equivalent.

The problems posed by the war in Viet Nam and by Chicago led King to his growing militantism. King never considered abandoning his commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience, but he did start taking stances that alienated him from former allies, most notably the Johnson White House.

It’s this later King that The Radical King allows us to reclaim. The pieces West has chosen to include go back to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement—but they also move forward to the later King who is less well remembered.

What I most prized about this collection is the pleasure of sinking into King’s reasoning. King was a figure of faith, but he was also a figure of reason, and he can “think on the page” like few others. To watch him sifting faith through the sieve of reason and reason through the sieve of faith is inspiring—whether or not one shares King’s religious beliefs.

The one thing I would have like more of in this collection is West’s commentary. His introductions to the pieces are brief. I assume that’s because he wants readers to focus on King’s words, not his own later interpretations. However, given West’s remarkable breadth of knowledge and (as with King) his balance of faith and reason, I felt as if this was an opportunity missed. We need to read and understand King in his own right, but we could also benefit from West’s insights.