[For this year’s MLK Day series, starting as always with my annual post on remembering the full King, I wanted to return to that source, focusing on a few under-remembered moments from King’s tragically brief but strikingly full activist life. Leading up to a special weekend post on a few of King’s 21st century heirs!]
On the first of two ways to think about King’s work resonating beyond his death.
There is of course no shortage of tragedies associated with the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. by white supremacist domestic terrorist James Earl Ray, with the way the murder tore him away from (and permanently affected) his young family atop the list. But on the collective and national levels, it is likewise profoundly tragic to have lost all that the not-yet-40-year old King would have contributed to our conversations, to our culture and society, to the quest for liberty and justice for all, to our efforts to create a more perfect union over the many decades of life and work that were denied him by Ray’s bullet. While his widow Coretta Scott King and so many others took up his work and legacy, the loss was and remains truly incalculable. But over the last two posts in this week’s series, I’m going to try to highlight a couple different aspects of King’s final years of activism that can help us both imagine what he might have done with his next 40 years and understand his powerful enduring legacy.
Yesterday I wrote about King’s first book, and today I’ll write about his fourth and final one: 1967’s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? It’s a coincidental but striking fact that King focused that final book (which of course he did not know would be his final one, although he was well aware of the constant threats on his life) on precisely questions of legacy and the future, both for his individual work and for the Civil Rights Movement and the nation as a whole. As a result, the book features some of his most overt and fleshed-out engagements with such contemporary forces as the Black Power movement, the Lyndon Johnson administration, and white liberals, with King viewing each and every such community sympathetically but with a critical eye toward its flaws and shortcomings. The book also—especially when read in correlation with his third book, 1964’s Why We Can’t Wait, about which I wrote in Monday’s post—makes clear that King continued to believe in the vital need for immediate and radical action and change, giving the lie to any voices who would use King to criticize 21st century radical activists or movements.
Many of Where Do We Go from Here’s arguments for such radical change interestingly utilize a far-too-forgotten late-19th century radical reformer: the economist and activist Henry George (not forgotten to me: I teach the introduction of his 1879 book Progress and Poverty in my Honors Lit Seminar on America in the Gilded Age, so I think about George quite a bit). King engages George at length, and uses his economic and social ideas to advance an argument about what American society needs if it is to achieve more genuine equality: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” Over the last few years, the concept of a universal basic income (UBI) has returned to our political and social debates, making it particularly important to trace a through-line for that concept from George to King to 21st century voices and arguments—one clear and potent example of a legacy for this culminating book and work of King’s.
Last MLK history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other MLK histories or contexts you’d highlight?