St. Martin, the Militant*
night toward the end of January I settled into bed late, after a strenuous day.
Coretta had already fallen asleep and just as I was about to doze off the
telephone rang. An angry voice
said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week
you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”
I hung up, but I couldn’t sleep.
Rev. Martin L. King, Jr.,
Toward Freedom (1958)
Three nights after this phone call, King’s house was bombed.
It is possible, in this age of consumer-driven commodification, for
millions to know a name, to recognize an image, and still to know next to
nothing about the recognized figure. It
has been over 30 years since the assassination of Dr. King, and in the 3 decades
thereafter, few Americans, black or white, have been so honored, so lionized, or
so deeply projected into public consciousness, as a figure of peace.
This would not be so objectionable were it not for the purposes of that
Much of the projection seems purely commercial, a secular day-off for
millions of workers, to allow them to stimulate the economy by buying stuff in
the King Day Sale. Much of it also
seems political, as Rev. King is raised as a kind of talisman, a symbol of peace
meant to keep the natives calm in times of discontent.
But symbols are funny things. They
are sometimes overrun by the rampaging complexities of reality.
Living beings change, develop and grow.
And Dr. King, in his later years (and under pressure from black radicals
and militants on his left) became increasingly disenchanted with society, and of
course, those who ruled the social order.
Black Christian theologian, Dr. James H. Cone, in his excellent Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Orbis,
1991), draws a compelling portrait of King’s private and public selves, and
his growing openness to radical ideas. Cone
writes that Martin’s wife, Coretta, who knew him best, saw him inching closer
and closer to the views of Malcolm X. Indeed,
Coretta S. King said as much, in her My Life with Martin Luther King, where she saw “firm agreement”
between the two men on “certain aspects” of Malcolm’s program.
She sensed that “at some point the two would have come closer together
and would have been a very strong force in the total struggle for liberation and
self-determination of black people in our society."
This was not to be.
Waves of rebellions in black communities in 1967 shook King, and opened
his eyes to what he called “a system of internal colonialism.” In words that would seem to presage the fiery words of Dr.
Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers a season later, King observed: “The slum
is little more than a domestic colony which leaves its inhabitants dominated
politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated at every turn”
(Cone, p. 223).
With these attacks on the economic injustices in America came criticism
of King by the media and their moneyed masters.
To his eternal credit, King did not turn from his vision, and instead
heightened his economic critique, saying, at the SCLC Convention of Aug. 1967:
to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in
life’s market place. But one day
we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
It means that questions must be raised.
“Who owns this oil?”… “Who
owns the iron ore?”… “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a
world that is two-thirds water?” (Cone, 224).
This is the voice of a man who was being radicalized.
Nor were his previous feelings of confidence and faith in white Americans
unchanged. King called America a
“confused,” “sick,” and “neurotic” nation, telling a group of blacks
in Louisville that “the vast majority of white Americans are racist,”
whether consciously or unconsciously (Cone, p. 233).
In months thereafter, he would severely criticize the Vietnam War, and call the U.S. the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (Cone, p. 237) at his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York City. Relatively shortly thereafter, Dr. King was sent to his fathers and from this world.
As King Day once again passes, let us all remember that a man is more than a symbol. Let us remember his growing radicalization, for if we have an idea where he was going, we begin to see why the powers that be, (the rulers, the FBI, the police, etc.) didn’t want him to arrive.
* Text © copyright 2001 by Mumia Abu-Jamal. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of the author.