Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Booknote: The Radical King

Martin Luther King, Jr., The Radical King, edited and with introduction by Cornel West. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-8070-1282-6.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: speeches, writings, biographical, politics, race studies, history, African American studies
Format: hardback
Source: Borrowed from Berea branch of Madison County Public Library

This book is a collection of speeches and writings by Martin Luther King, Jr. that highlight more of his radical and social justice thoughts and stances. Yes, he worked hard for African American civil rights, but he fought for so much more, against war and poverty as well, and he was very outspoken about American imperialism. These are aspects of his life and work that many have forgotten, yet they remain very relevant.

In a time when it seems a black man in the U.S. is killed by police as a regular occurrence,, often for no other reason than the color of his skin, reading this book is not easy. The riots in Baltimore, which were happening around the time I was reading the book, remind us that racism and oppression of minorities are very much present and with us today in the United States. King preached nonviolence, but he also acknowledged that:

". . . the riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America's failed to hear? It's failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of justice and freedom have not been met. It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, humanity, and equality, and it is still true. It is still true that these things are being ignored" (239). 

That was from his speech "The Other America," which he delivered in 1968; it was a speech he gave to a  union composed largely of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and others of color. It gives me a bit of a chill or thrill knowing Puerto Ricans heard his words. But more than that, and here is why at times reading Dr. King now is so hard, is that today it may be a case of willful deafness. It's not that America can't hear the plight of its poor and oppressed. It's that America actively chooses not to hear it, chooses to ignore it, and inflict violence on its minorities. In that context, violent response to violence is the unheard finally saying it is enough, you will hear us; we are calling you out on your abuses and sins. In reading this book, were Dr. King alive today, he'd probably (I'd like to think) still follow the path of nonviolence, but it would be hard for many to believe with so many violently opposed. In so many ways, Jim Crow never left. King's words remain so true and relevant, and they speak a truth that is not easy nor cuddly, and they are certainly not words conservatives can co-opt, for such words indict them and their exploitative oppression of others. And others includes many for King cared not just for his people, but for all people-- Black, Latino, white, poor, so on.

The book is arranged in four thematic parts. The themes are:

  • Radical love
  • Prophetic vision: global analysis and local praxis
  • The revolution of nonviolent resistance: against empire and white supremacy
  • Overcoming the tyranny of poverty and hatred 
Each part includes a selection of his speeches and writings reflecting the theme. There is a "classic" or two, such as "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which is pretty much mandatory reading in the few schools that may teach something of civil rights in U.S. history, and "The Other America," which is often quoted, but I get the impression very few people have read the whole thing. "The Other America" is a powerful piece when you read all of it. If all you know of Dr. King is his "I have a dream" speech, you are seriously missing out on what Dr. King really had to say and all he fought for. This book aims to remedy that. If you read it from start to end, you will get a sense of how Dr. King's thinking evolved from his early days to become a social justice fighter for all, even when some of his allies left him or rebuked him for, in essence, what they saw as going off topic. If you read his words, you see that topics like poverty, war, imperialism, oppression, so on are not really off topic. They are all part of a larger picture he saw and wanted us to see in order to make things right.

The book is edited and introduced by Dr. Cornel West. In the introduction, he argues that so many do not know the radical King. He highlights examples of King's more radical views, imagining how King's broader and radical views would have been better known had he lived longer to continue his work. I have been fortunate to be able to learn more about the radical King (reading this book, reading and seeking out more works by him and about him, my work at Berea College, and my journey on the civil rights tour). More folks need to know him now.  I'll tell you who did know Dr. King really well then, aside from his family and those closest to him: the FBI and the U.S. Government who labeled him "the most dangerous man in America" (x). You earn that label for speaking truth and making the powerful and the oppressor very uncomfortable, by calling them out and demanding for them to make things right and deliver on the true promise of America. For King, as West writes,

"The litmus test for realizing King's dream was neither a black face in the White House nor a black presence on Wall Street. Rather, the fulfillment of his dream was for all poor and working people to live lives of decency and dignity" (xi). 

We are a very long way from that dream, and we seem to be getting further away from it these days.

West also introduces each thematic part with a short commentary that puts the writings in context. Each essay or speech includes a small introductory note so we know when it took place and get a sense of what was going on at the time. The book also features notes and an index.

I liked the book. The book could be a bit exhausting to read at times. I also did jump a bit in reading it for some selections are more interesting that others. Some works are more intense than others. Also, keep in mind that Dr. King was a minister, so he does employ much religious imagery, and he comes to his work from a Christian view. Though he strives to be inclusive, there are some moments when the Christian privilege can come across a bit too strong, especially for heathens like me or folks from other faiths. I tended to favor his works geared to more general audiences, but your mileage may vary. In the end, it is also fascinating to see how well read he was and how be brings those readings into his thinking.

3 out of 5 stars.

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Additional reading notes:

MLK quoting Gandhi and nonviolence:

"Now, it's possible to resist evil; this is your first responsibility, never adjust to evil, resist it. But if you can resist it without resorting to violence or to hate, you can stand up against it and still love the individuals that carry on the evil system that you are resisting" (28-29). 

What makes a religion that is spiritually dying in the words of MLK. This is as relevant today as it was when Dr. King wrote it in 1958. I admit that for me this is another reason I am a heathen. Very few organized religions fit the following statement:

"It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried" (40). 

The theologian MLK mentions above wrote Christianity and the Social Crisis. On a side note, it is interesting to me how well-read King was as he mentions and discusses writers and thinkers whose work he read and pondered in his road to nonviolence.

King on nonviolence resistance with love. Here he quotes Booker T. Washington:

"Booker T. Washington was right. 'Let no man pull you so low so as to make you hate him" (52-53). 

Then again, that idea is not just for the nonviolent. Even Michael Corleone knew the significance of not hating your enemies:

"Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment." --From the film The Godfather, Part III.

It's just something to ponder. King naturally wraps his nonviolent resistance in a Christian blanket; it's where he is coming from. But whereas King sees Gandhi as one of Jesus' "other sheep" (which I find a little pretentious), reality may well be that decency and morality are not Christianity's exclusive franchise. Although King does have his ecumenical moments of acknowledging other faith paths or those with no faith. That is a big deal considering how many Christians today think it's their way or else. Yet King then falls back into, in essence, they've got to believe in something. Why? Why can it just not be because they are decent people? Here are King's words that prompted this line of thought for me:

"It is true that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole" (53).

I think a large swatch of atheists would say not believing in a personal god is not difficult at all. And they are fine, decent people.

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This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

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