Martin Luther King’s Radical Legacy, 50 Years On

Wednesday 4 April marked 50 years since the assassination of civil rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The occasion has led to an outpouring of tributes, as well as a contentious debate over who can claim to represent King’s legacy.

Thousands of people flocked to the site of his assassination, with Memphis police estimating that 10,000 participated in a march. Cities across the United States joined with their own ceremonies. Bells chimed across the nation 39 times, symbolising Martin Luther King’s age at the time of his death.

On Twitter, US President Donald Trump joined those expressing their admiration for King’s legacy.


The public displays of grief and deference for King come fifty years after he was killed. They mark a considerable shift in King’s public positioning since his lifetime.

Controversial in his lifetime

As a piece published in USA Today observes, King was unpopular in America, with a public disapproval rating of 75 percent during the week of his death. King was less popular than President Trump is today. His confrontation of racism in America was controversial, even radical in his context.

In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Cornell West says that King’s legacy has become ‘sanitised’.

“In this brief celebratory moment of King’s life and death we should be highly suspicious of those who sing his praises yet refuse to pay the cost of embodying King’s strong indictment of the US empire, capitalism and racism in their own lives,” West writes.

West’s criticism is similar to that levelled at a controversial Ram trucks ad that aired during the 2018 Superbowl.

“We now expect the depressing spectacle every January of King’s “fans” giving us the sanitized (sic) versions of his life,” West writes.

“We now come to the 50th anniversary of his assassination, and we once again are met with sterilized versions of his legacy. A radical man deeply hated and held in contempt is recast as if he was a universally loved moderate.”

King was committed to resisting American militarism and criticised capitalism for its potential fostering of inequality. In a speech he delivered on 14 September 1966, King said “something is wrong with the economic system of our nation.”

“Something is wrong with capitalism,” Dr. King said.

“Maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism. We must develop programs that will drive the nation to the realisation of the need for a guaranteed annual income.”

Standing outside of America’s party political structure, King was a strident critic of the two parties’ policies. He once said “the Negro has been betrayed by both the Republican and the Democratic Party.”

He famously never endorsed anyone. In 2008, Sojourners’ Jim Wallis told Insights that this was something that he emulated.

Representing King today

Cornell West suggests that King’s legacy is best represented today by contemporary activists who, “choose to be extremists of love, justice, courage and freedom, even if our chances to win are that of a snowball in hell! This kind of unstoppable King-like extremism is a threat to every status quo!”

King’s children made this same point in their media appearances. His daughter Bernice took to Twitter to make the same challenge of those who would follow in King’s footsteps.

Image by Liz Mc

Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor




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