Teaching Martin Luther King as a Radical

I’ve been out of high school for a while now—my 10 year reunion is actually coming up! (No, I’m not going. Who wants to remember high school?) So that means I really can’t comment too much on primary and secondary education nowadays, and have to rely on my memory. And from what I remember, I have a lot of issues with the way the Civil Rights Movement is taught in grammar and high school. 

I’ll focus on one example: The portrayal of Martin Luther King as a moderate. If other students were taught the same way I was, they heard that MLK was a counterpoint to Malcolm X. One was a moderate and one was a radical … and you know who the radical was. 

But let me pitch this to you: Martin Luther King was unquestionably a radical, and teaching him as such presents a much more accurate story of the Civil Rights Movement than portraying him as a moderate who played by the rules. 

Malcolm X

I think a lot of this misunderstanding comes from a misunderstanding of what a radical actually is. We consistently perceive radicals as violent. Sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably—a violent action is a radical action, and vice versa. So therefore, with that understanding, someone who advocates violence is a radical and someone who advocates nonviolence is moderate. And then we sometimes equate radicalism with action and moderation with inaction. I see this tendency among my students sometimes, and it’s one of the more frustrating things I’ve dealt with as a teacher. They equate nonviolence with inaction. They hear Malcolm X say “it’s time to stop singing and start swinging” in his Ballot or the Bullet speech and see that as action. Sometimes students criticize MLK for inaction because they see him as a moderate who wasn’t willing to use the same methods as more radical black leaders.

This is a false understanding of radicalism. Radicalism is more about ends than means. Radicals seek quick, dramatic change. They seek to overturn existing systems and traditions. Malcolm X defined the term “revolution” well: “Revolutions overturn systems! Revolutions destroy systems!” That’s an excellent definition. It also perfectly describes what Martin Luther King did. 

The system of racial oppression stretched back to the very beginnings of the United States. By the 1640s, slave laws in colonial Virginia set different legal standards for white and black residents, even if they weren’t enslaved. Legalized slavery continued until the Civil War, but that didn’t end the system of racial oppression. Segregation, both legal and in practice, kept the black population in a perpetual second-class status. It was this 400-year system that MLK and other so-called moderate civil rights leaders sought to overturn and destroy. And they didn’t want to do this slowly. As King said multiple times in his I Have a Dream speech, “Now is the time,” forcefully declaring that America’s black citizens had waited long enough for their rights. The status quo that had lasted for centuries had to end. If that’s not a radical goal, I don’t know what is.

So when I teach Martin Luther King, I teach him as a radical. Students are sometimes taken aback when I do this, because it goes against what they’ve understood about the man. But that’s fine, I like giving students different perspectives from what they’ve learned in the past. What would the point of college be if I didn’t do that?

Archive copy of King’s letter

My favorite source showing King’s radicalism is his Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963). If anyone views MLK as less active than his black nationalist counterparts, I think this source  clears things up. 

King understood entirely that action was the only way to achieve goals. As he wrote, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Nonviolent direct action was his method for demanding that freedom. As he wrote, after several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations in Birmingham, “we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.” 

When I teach Civil Rights, I really dramatize what nonviolent direct action means. The point is exposing systems of oppression and shoving it in the face of everyone watching, so they can no longer deny what’s happening. When people are assaulted for peacefully sitting at a lunch counter, that dramatically reveals that something is drastically wrong with the status quo. Once again, King said it best: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” So nonviolent protests were not evidence of inaction. On the contrary, the entire point was creating crisis that no one could ignore.

Police assault peaceful marchers on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, Selma, AL

Remember also that a key part of nonviolent resistance was breaking laws. King, along with many of his colleagues and followers, were officially criminals. He was arrested constantly, and jailed 29 times between 1955 and his assassination in 1968. He wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail … in jail! This is because nonviolent resistance openly advocated disobeying unjust laws. As King explained: “I was arrested Friday on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade, but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust.” This is the essence of civil disobedience. A legal system based on oppression of minorities was illegitimate, and moral people were under no obligation to obey such laws.

King’s mugshot from Birmingham, 1963

This willingness to break laws and advocate overturning the status quo led many contemporaries to consider King a criminal extremist. That’s why the FBI constantly harassed and smeared him. King was initially annoyed at his “extremist” label, “But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love?” Essentially, King was fine with considering his own views extreme and radical, along with his detractors.

Some students have said that King wasn’t a radical because he disagreed with Malcolm X, who they consider the more radical of the two. It’s true he disagreed with Malcom X and black nationalism in general, but that’s not evidence that King was not a radical. Certainly he rejected the black nationalist movement, but fellow radicals always disagree with each other. Put a Leninist and an anarchist in the same room and see how much they agree with each other. King understood that radicals can differ with each other: “the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love?” 

If anything comes through in the Letter from Birmingham Jail, it’s King’s frustration with moderation. By this point, King even suggested that moderates were enemies of the Civil Rights Movement: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” In the struggle for racial equality, there was no room left for moderation. It would take consistent, direct action to force a crisis and finally lead to a conversation on the topic. The fact that this direct action was nonviolent doesn’t make it any less radical.

So it’s this side of Martin Luther King that I prefer highlighting when I teach Civil Rights. It’s one of those perspectives that I know most students have never heard before, because of the way Civil Rights is taught in lower levels. (Also full disclaimer here: This is in no way meant to disrespect high school or grammar school teachers and I don’t blame them. These teachers usually don’t have a lot of control over what they teach in the classroom. They can’t help it if curriculums are flawed.) 

Historians probably won’t be surprised by this characterization of Martin Luther King. But for non-professionals and general readers, I hope this gives you a new perspective. I hope you can come away with a new appreciation for how the Civil Rights Movement achieved its goals. Nonviolent leaders like King had unquestionably radical goals, and openly advocated dismantling a system that had been in place for centuries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *