Martin Luther King's True Legacy: Revolutionary Ideals


Mr. Jelks is an associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a writer for the History News Service. He is writing a book on one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s mentors, Benjamin Elijah Mays.

It was a momentous day this past November when the ground breaking for the monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., occurred. Erecting a monument for Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall in Washington will honor a great American. However, when it is built the powerful message that King delivered to his contemporaries will be diluted by effusive rhetoric obscuring historical reality.

The reality is that Martin Luther King held revolutionary ideals rooted in the 18th-century vision of freedom and equality and grounded by a Christian theological vision of social justice. With these ideals, he and his fellow civil rights workers intentionally created national discomfort in cities, north as well as south, throughout the 1960s. Holding true to his principles is what compelled him to take a deeply reflective antiwar stance in the era of the Vietnam War. King articulated the great revolutionary hope that human beings might one day live in a world of individuality, mutuality and respect.

King's ideals were also derived from a human rights tradition rooted in the long fight against slavery. He recognized that many before him had paved the way for him and his contemporaries to take up the fight for freedom and equality. He felt duty-bound to keep antiracist protests and democratic freedoms alive in the United States even as the forces of Cold War geopolitics were distorting them in the greater part of the world, in the name of political freedom. We should all be mindful that King carried on the tradition of African American political activism that believed in the promise of democracy more deeply than the original framers of the Constitution had intended. His abiding faith in those ideals cost him dearly.

He sacrificed his life to continuous political struggle. His dream sometimes became a nightmare and was met with frustrated reactions that at times were vitriolic, scornful and violent. These responses were sanctioned by law and held in place by custom. It is sad to recollect that most of the American public, either because of fear or complacency, accepted the forms of inequalities that had been heaped upon racial minorities in our country as though they were ordained by God. King, however, sustained a utopian vision of what life could be like for all Americans and people around the world if national leaders and common citizens alike exercised our political will for the common good.

King and his generation did not fully succeed in their efforts to eradicate poverty and end racial disparities in the United States. Nevertheless, they broke the yoke of America's version of racial apartheid, which makes the United States a better country today than at the time of his death nearly 40 years ago. The lesson the King memorial must call to mind when it is unveiled, lest it become merely another sculpture depicting a great person long dead, is that every generation must wage a political struggle to sustain and gain its democratic freedoms.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Ralph E. Luker - 1/20/2007

Mr. Kreuter, Did you bother to read the article? Did you notice that Randal Jelks teaches at Calvin College in Michigan? Just how many real left-wingers would you guess are on its faculty?

Jason Blake Keuter - 1/17/2007

Thus, since King's revolution was successful, it should end. This article calls for "political struggle" to gain democratic rights. Those rights have been gained. Everyone has the right to vote, assemble freely, debate, organize, etc. Not everyone has the same amount of money and the same houses and the same jobs and the same ideas and the same.....well you get the soul-sapping picture.

Thus the rights enshrined in the 14th Amendment, that of equal citizenship, have been won. Thus the struggle to win political rights is really something for people OUTSIDE the United States - people in places like North Korea, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Palesine, China, etc. And there are people in those societies who need support...and the more support the alleged supporters of political rights in American universities give them, the more fearful and silent people in those socieities will be emboldened to express their desire for the political freedom that MLK won for black Americans in the South. The more the left focuses on the evils of America, the more emboldened the forces of oppression will be to crush all signs of dissent.

Now, as for sustaining freedoms, i.e. preserving the freedoms enshrined in the 14th amendment - that is simply: picket outside the Supreme Court and campus adminstration buildings calling for the abolition of affirmative action. You may be jeered and booed and at first the majority will be against you, but if you persist with your struggle, you will a la the Civil Rights movement, go from minority dissident to leader of formerly misguided majoritarians in the resurrection of the gains of the Civil Rights movement lost due, in large part, to those within it who didn't have the good sense to see that the struggle was over and it was time to live the lives the struggle gave them.

Jason Blake Keuter - 1/17/2007

This article perfectly summarizes the problem with King's "legacy". Left-wing historians wish to downplay what was significant about King's life (the destruction of Jim Crow and the realization of equal citizenship) and argue that King himself saw equal political rights "as only the beginning" and was moving towards a more enlightened, quasi-socialist resistence against class injustice and American Imperialism. Despite having once deconstructed hagiographies of "traditional" American heroes, they know rely on a kind of sannctimonious hagiographic status of Martin Luther King to promote a radical-left vision. In other words, since King is lionized and heroic, then if he was for something, that thing must be right.

One might consider King's success in the Civil Rights movement to be an indication of the fundamental rightness of equal citizenship. One might consider King's effforts to sustain his revolutionary martyrdom by looking for new arenas in which to practice it, a kind of folly. In turn, King's assasination saved him the indignity of practicing that folly long enough for him to lose the iconographic status those presently beholden to that folly rely on to avoid exposure themselves.

Students of MLK (as opposed to left-wing propagandist) might consider boning up on Weber's theory of Charismatic leadership and the belief in permanent revolution that oozes forth from this article.