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This MLK Day, We Must Remember His Anti-War—and Anti-Capitalist—Legacy

“Dear politicians/political influencers: When you tweet about my father’s birthday, remember that he was resolute about eradicating racism, poverty, and militarism. Encourage and enact policies that reflect his teachings.”

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, Michael King Sr., when inspired by a visit to sites associated with the German protestant reformer Martin Luther, changed his name to Martin Luther King Sr. and his son’s to Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. would become a scholar, a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and an activist on behalf of not only Black people but all of the oppressed. His efforts resulted in landmark legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Immediately after King’s assassination, the Congressional Black Caucus, civil rights activists, and Coretta Scott King, Martin’s widow, campaigned to create a federal holiday to honor his work.

The maestro Stevie Wonder even composed “Happy Birthday,” which appeared on his Hotter Than July album released in 1980, as both an ode to King and to campaign for the holiday.

Despite a filibuster by ultra-conservative Senator Jesse Helms and the budgetary concerns of Ronald Reagan, MLK Day was signed into law on November 2, 1983. It was first observed on the third Monday of January, 1986. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act—sponsored by Senator Harris Wofford, Democrat of Pennsylvania, and Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia—as a challenge to Americans to honor the work of King by volunteering.

In King’s final speech, he beseeched American lawmakers and political leaders to “be true to what you said on paper” and uphold the values and promises made in the nation’s Constitution. So on the day we recognize King’s birthday, it seems all too fitting to ask, are current political leaders meeting that standard? And, if not, when will politicians meet the challenge of honoring the words and work of King with their legislation and executive action? When will our courts honor the words and work of King through their interpretations of the law? 

The MLK Day of Service, which was presumably genuinely meant to promote goodwill and service to one’s fellow human through volunteerism, has morphed into a day that reduces King’s work against racism, capitalism, and militarism to philanthropy and one-off volunteerism rooted in a pseudo-humanitarianism disconnected from public policy.

White conservatives are largely at fault. They’ve worked tirelessly to render MLK Day powerless in confronting and combating what King called the “three evils of society”: racism, extreme materialism, and militarism. Each year, these same politicians post a picture of King with a quote, echoing the sentiment of Ronald Reagan signing the holiday into law: providing themselves with a political pretext to silence the mounting criticism of their positions on civil rights.

In a letter to Meldrim Thomson Jr., the then-governor of New Hampshire, a conservative Republican who said King was “a man of immoral character” with communist ties, Reagan responded by saying:

“On the national holiday you mentioned, I have the reservations you have, but here the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality. Indeed, to them, the perception is reality. We hope some modifications might still take place in Congress.”

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These ongoing attempts by conservatives to remold King’s legacy are rooted in cognitive dissonance. They feign a reverence for King’s words and mission as they labor to enact inhumane immigration policies, roll back health care protections, undermine Black history and the teaching of it, and erode the Voting Rights Act, which King was instrumental in pushing for.

They manipulate King’s words as a way to extol colorblindness, in addition to hard work and merit.

Liberals, too, are at fault.

Like white conservatives, white and Black liberals post a picture and a quote each year to celebrate King. But while liberals’ approach to domestic politics often more closely aligns with King’s views, their approach to foreign policy often differs little from conservatives and bears no resemblance to what King advocated for.

Liberals are complicit in underwriting the illegal occupation of Syria, supporting an invasion of Haiti, renewing a spy program that harms people of color, harboring a racist approach to Venezuela, and the continued unlawful detainment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

Both political factions are guilty of indiscriminate military spending, including the recent $886 million defense bill, while soliciting funds for war in Ukraine and genocide in Gaza beyond the federal funds already allocated for Ukraine and Israel.

Would any liberal politician quote King’s Beyond Vietnam speech, where he said, “War [is] an enemy of the poor”?

Certainly not our current President. On the viability of the U.S. funding both the Ukrainians and Israelis simultaneously, Joe Biden had this to say during a 60 Minutes interview in 2023: 

“We’re the United States of America for god’s sake, we’re the most powerful nation, not in the world but in the history of the world. We can take care of both of these and still maintain our overall international defense.”

If it’s true that the United States is the most powerful country in the world with the ability to fund a war and a genocide, why not fund people instead of wars? Why not forgive student loans, provide universal child care for all working families, make election day a paid federal holiday, protect the right to vote for all, take health insurance out of the hands of the free market, mandate a baseline universal income, and provide reparations to African Americans for the unpaid wages owed to our ancestors? Where is the political will to accomplish these things? Where is the moxie, the brashness, the swagger? 

Instead, the United States does the work of neocolonialism and white settler domination. It does so under the guise of promoting democracy around the world, guided by what the Reverend Munther Issac called the “theology of empire,” while calling itself exceptional.

For anyone desiring to truly honor and celebrate both the words and work of King this year, and every year, here’s how:

Don’t just read King’s quotes. Read his works: Why We Can’t Wait and Where Do We Go from Here. Find other texts on King written by authors like Taylor BranchPeniel JosephJonathan Eig, and Lewis Baldwin. Read King’s speeches and challenge yourself to change your lens of the world to reflect the world he relentlessly pushed us towards.

After reading King, research social justice organizations in your area dedicated to supporting marginalized communities, and then join one. Give them the sacrifice of your time and the very best of your talents. Contact your local, state, and federal representatives and demand that they pass legislation to support poor and historically oppressed communities. Be an informed voter every election year and hold who you vote accountable with your advocacy.

Living out the meaning of King’s words will change the world. One day of service will not. As for politicians, I leave you with the words of Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter:

“Dear politicians/political influencers: When you tweet about my father’s birthday, remember that he was resolute about eradicating racism, poverty, and militarism. Encourage and enact policies that reflect his teachings.”

Rann Miller is an educator and freelance writer based in New Jersey. He is the author of Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids (Bloom Books for Young Readers, March 2023). Follow Rann on Twitter @RealRannMiller.

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