How young activists are reclaiming a more radical version of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King's disruptive tactics once earned him a reputation for divisiveness among most of the American public.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
A man wears a 'Black Lives Matter' hoodie on the lawn of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. during a rally to mark the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, Oct. 10, 2015.

On Monday, the nation honors a figure whose legacy has for years been the safest of touchstones for political figures, regardless of ideological stripe. 

This year, those reflecting on the meaning of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work should have much to ponder, given the departure of the nation’s first African-American president and the elevation of explicit appeals to white racial identity into mainstream politics. 

And what has grown into a perennial exercise for young racial-justice activists on the left – the “reclaiming" of the civil-rights movement’s more urgent and disruptive tactics, as well as the strains in Dr. King's teachings that linked racial justice to economic and foreign-policy questions – could seem more poignant than ever, as Democrats’ loss in the presidential election has sparked calls for the left to shift its focus away from racial issues and seek to recapture more of middle America.

“There is a Martin Luther King that is important to the resistance movement that we don’t hear about,” Abdul Aliy-Muhammad, co-founder of the Black and Brown Workers Collective in Philadelphia, told the Associated Press. “We always hear about love and forgiveness.... There was also a King who was radical.”

It’s certainly true that King wasn’t always beloved: in one 1966 Gallup poll, 63 percent of American public said they viewed him negatively. And much of the press saw his civil disobedience – sit-ins at federal buildings, boycotts of schools, and marches in cities that had stridently racist leaders – as unnecessarily divisive. The FBI, meanwhile, called him "most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country."

That might have been at least in part because, as The Washington Post noted in 2015, many of the nonviolent protests that King helped organize were far from passive affairs. Tactics like one 1963 mobilization of black children to march through Birmingham, Ala., where the police force had garnered a reputation for brutality, might seem questionable even today.

“They couldn’t have been ignorant of the terrible response” they would incite, New York University historian David Levering Lewis, who has written biographies of King, told the Post then. “King and his inner circle appreciated the probable certainty of violence on the part of the establishment to trigger responses that they wanted, in terms of legislation and policies.” 

In the decades following King’s 1968 assassination, memories of such hard-nosed political strategy gradually gave way to his calls for voting rights and the end of segregation, which appealed to moderate swaths of the American public. The fierce opposition to US foreign policy that King added to his agenda toward the end of his life – for him, the US was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” – or the heavy presence of labor activists within the ranks of the civil-rights movement’s organizers, conversely, has faded.

That inter-issue emphasis has inspired activists with Black Lives Matter and other similar-minded groups.

"We do King a disservice when we try to tell a flat story of turning the other cheek," Charlene Carruthers, national director of Chicago’s Black Youth Project 100, told the AP. "It was never simply that."

The "agitation" of King's generation of activists "shows up differently than how our agitation shows up today," Ms. Carruthers added. "However, I think King’s work and the work we do are part of the larger tradition of black radical resistance."

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