MLK’s Radicalism Speaks to Contemporary Protests

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Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is the author of "Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America," "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama" and "Stokely: A Life." Follow him on Twitter.


The 47th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination should inspire us all to reimagine this political revolutionary’s final act as a statesman and civil rights leader.

In the afterglow of the March on Washington and the Selma-to-Montgomery march, King became a pillar of fire, rejecting the course of political moderation and social reform that had made him palatable to white leaders and a hero to African Americans.

King’s final years found him linking the struggle for racial justice to a wider crusade to end war and poverty. Tellingly, his comprehensive approach, which focused on changing America’s foreign and domestic policies as well as hearts and minds, found him under attack by critics who claimed that he was in over his head on the subject of Vietnam and foolish to break with former ally President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The radical King formed an anti-war political alliance with black power leader Stokely Carmichael. On April 15, 1967, in New York City, King and Carmichael headlined the largest anti-war rally in American history to that date, placing two of the era’s leading black political activists at the forefront of a still-unpopular anti-war movement.

King had also publicly repudiated the war in Vietnam exactly one year to the day before his death in a speech at Riverside Church in New York City. His speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” announced his formal break with both the Johnson Administration (he would never visit the White House again) and political moderation.




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