Our society has come to realize that King's legacy and those who led and participated in the civil rights movement during their complicated times deserve our attention, not only to acknowledge the courageous actions of important figures in American history, but to recognize the continued struggle of social justice in our nation and the world.
John Hopkins, Ph.D., associate dean of students and director of Saint Martin's University's Diversity and Equity Center, shared this reflection on the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.
Any person living within any era during the contentious history of the United States could make the claim that they were living in complicated times. My father, who descends from the Great Dakota Nation, a proud Marine and veteran of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, would often say to me: “You think today is complicated. Nothing was more complicated than the 1960’s!” Perspective, I suppose, is a reliable yet relative barometer of the times in which we live. But there is something complicated about our time too. The nation is rife with racial injustices and violence. From the police killings of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police to the recent display of white supremacy and nationalism at the nation’s capital, our times are indeed complicated.
Yet we are not alone in these complicated times. Voices from our past can speak to us. They can bring peace and calm; they can provide insight and wisdom. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one such voice. To be sure, we need the courage to realize racial justice in our society; but we also need the will to listen to the clarion voices from our past.
Across the nation, k-12 schools, colleges and universities, and towns and cities plan to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King and the broader struggle for civil rights. Our society has come to realize that King’s legacy and those who led and participated in the civil rights movement during their complicated times deserve our attention, not only to acknowledge the courageous actions of important figures in American history, but to recognize the continued struggle of social justice in our nation and the world.
Recently, I have begun to listen more critically to King’s legacy and ask this basic question: what did King really teach us? Let me add one thought to what I think his legacy means for us today: He taught us how to be radical.
I need to qualify what I mean by radical. To be radical is to challenge the status quo where the powerful have control over the minds, bodies, lands, and resources of society. To be radical is to summon the moral courage to call out injustices and hold leaders accountable. To be radical is to transform society in such a way that the most vulnerable among us are heard, recognized, and valued. To be radical is to take up new ways of thinking and being about how we, working democratically, redistribute the material and social resources in our society. To be radical is to take a fierce stance against racism, in all forms, and to offer a new vision that runs counter to the way things currently are.
King’s promotion of nonviolence made him one of the most recognizable leaders during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. But after more than fifty years, few people appreciate how truly radical he was. This idea of radical is based on a recent text that tries to capture King anew, entitled The Radical King. Cornel West, a leading Black intellectual and activist, says it this way in the book’s introduction:
“The radical King was a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies…The response of the radical King to our catastrophic moment can be put in one word: revolution—a revolution in our priorities, a reevaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life, and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.”
What King teaches us is that to be radical, in his sense of the word, is to transform our society from centering on the lives of the rich and powerful to fostering a revolutionary spirit that listens and responds to the plight and suffering of the oppressed. It is to withstand the tendency in our society to keep things as they always have been, to become unconformable with our comfortable lives. But West also frames the radical King as an undying promoter of radical love. He writes:
“Radical love requires the cowardly self to die in order for the courageous self to live—daily. This death-in-life conversion sustains the self in the face of terror and trauma.”
Through radical love, King teaches us that we need to love the ‘un-loved’, those whom society has deemed unworthy of care, concern, and justice. As West describes:
“King’s radical love is inseparable from the radical freedom he wants for unfree people—and for all others.”
So what does it mean to be radical for our complicated times? As important as it is for us to always remember and commemorate the past—to teach our children the stories of the movement, marches, and leaders who worked to transform our society, we need to consider what King and his radical love teaches us for our complicated times. Who are the unloved in our society? Who among us exist and live on the margins, powerless, and voiceless? What social and political structures need to be transformed so each person’s needs are met with dignity? What new visions do we need today to embody the kind of radical love King taught us? What issues do we need to be radical about?
These questions, I think, require us, the Saint Martin’s community, to reflect critically and deeply on what radical love looks like for us as we live and teach our Catholic, Benedictine mission. Perhaps our response to these complicated times in which we live can be steeped in the radical King. Listening to the radical King provides an opportunity for us to reflect on his legacy anew, to the prophetic vision of a future that, to use West’s words, “rests on a deep democratic vision of a better world.”