With the passing of each holiday in his remembrance, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. becomes further absorbed into a liberal narrative of American progress but King’s actual politics and organizing speak to a far more radical legacy.
A year before his assassination, Martin Luther King was talking revolution. “I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution,” he said, “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” Speaking before a venue of religious figures at New York’s Riverside Church in April of 1967, King began to link the struggles for liberation then erupting all over the globe to a collective revolution of values. Importantly for King, a reverend and theologian, this was to be a spiritual revolution, one in which the priorities and privileges of our culture, our worldviews, and understanding of our role in the world must be transformed into a better version of ourselves, toward “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood [sic],” he said.
The Three Evils
King’s revolution of values was not just idealism, for in that same speech King linked the spiritual revolution he called for to an analysis of the three evils afflicting American society: “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” By this time in 1967, after the legislative victories in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King saw that the struggle for black liberation in the U.S. could not be confined to political struggle and divorced from other structural oppressions. Racism and white supremacy were indelibly tied to “materialism,” and “militarism,” the forces of inequality and violence that lay at the root of American society.
Indeed, against inequality King was about to launch the “Poor People’s Campaign,” a national organizing effort to address the poverty and inequality that still kept African Americans as second class citizens, even with new political rights. In the wake of legislative victories, King argued that “now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.” There was still an economic revolution to be won, without which the struggle for black freedom would be forever incomplete.