Monday, January 19, 2015

Cornel West on 'The Radical King'

from the Chicago Tribune By Kevin Nance

Of the words most frequently used to describe the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. today, "radical" is not high on the list. With his insistence on nonviolence, his Southern humility, his Christian bearing, and his soaring yet measured oratory, King never cast stones, much less fire bombs, real or symbolic. But underneath this sober exterior lay the passion of a revolutionary who seethed at what he saw as the failure of Western capitalism to address not only racism but poverty, militarism and empire- building.

Although most closely associated with the civil rights movement, King saw that struggle as intertwined with economic inequality and American foreign policy, all of which he spoke or wrote about throughout his life.

It's this far more nuanced figure that "The Radical King," a new collection of excerpts from King's speeches and other writings edited and introduced by Cornel West, hopes to bring into focus. In these passages, King recalls some of the most dramatic episodes of the civil rights movement (such as the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott), but also holds forth on the Vietnam War, Zionism and the Middle East, apartheid in South Africa, anti-colonialism in India, and workers' rights movements around the world, among other topics.

Printers Row Journal recently caught up with West, 61, for a phone interview. The author of several books and co-host of public radio's "The Smiley & West Show" with Tavis Smiley, West has taught at Yale, Harvard and Princeton universities and is now a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Here's an edited transcript of our chat, which ranged from King's radicalism to the presidency of Barack Obama to the controversy surrounding the new film "Selma," in theaters now.

Q: Implicit in the title of the book — and you make it explicit in your introduction — is that we don't really understand Dr. King's philosophy, at least not in its totality. In the full spectrum of the civil rights movement that includes Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, we think of King as a moderate, maybe even a conservative, not a radical.

A: True, but I think it's important not to view Martin Luther King Jr. in a narrow political manner. His fundamental commitment is to a radical love of humanity, and especially of poor and working people. And that radical love leads him to a radical analysis of power, domination and oppression. What's difficult is to situate him ideologically under a particular category. It's clear that he was incredibly courageous in his critique of white supremacy, wealth inequality, and imperial power as it relates to war in particular. But it's easy to deodorize Martin King, to sanitize or sterilize him. And I simply want to reveal his radical love and his radical analysis as what they really were.

Q: You talk in the introduction about how if certain things had happened — if he had met with Malcolm X on a certain day, if he had proceeded along this path or another path — we might have a better understanding today of what King's philosophy truly was in all its nuances. As it is, we're left with a kind of simplified version.

A: That's right. Certainly King, in the mainstream perception of him, had a dream. Yes, he did. But the question becomes, what was that dream? It wasn't the American Dream. It was a dream that all human beings, especially poor and working people, be treated with dignity. The American Dream is individualistic. King's dream was collective. The American Dream says, "I can engage in upward mobility and live the good life." King's dream was fundamentally Christian. His commitment to radical love had everything to do with his commitment to Jesus of Nazareth, and his dream had everything to do with community, with a "we" consciousness that included poor and working people around the world, not just black people.

Q: At the time of his assassination in Memphis, in fact, Dr. King was speaking out in support of striking sanitation workers there, without regard to race.

A: Absolutely. In the practice of radical love, you are embracing human beings across the board, but you do give a preference — very much like Jesus — to the least of these, to the weak, to the vulnerable. That includes poor whites and poor browns, as well as the poor in black ghettos.

Q: Not long ago I interviewed your colleague Tavis Smiley, who pointed out that King had a plan to occupy the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to put pressure on the Johnson administration to do something about poverty. It seems that the dots have not been connected enough in terms of the connection that King drew between racism and poverty; maybe this book tries to connect those dots.

A: I think so. It tries to make a direct and intimate connection between poverty, militarism, materialism and racism. And that's the center of this book — the idea that anybody who takes Martin Luther King seriously has got to go beyond the standard understanding of who he was, has to connect those dots. It's important to note that these are his own words. The book just provides a framework for listening to those words.

Q: You say in the introduction that King was a "democratic socialist," but not a Marxist or communist, even though he views capitalism as flawed.

A: He was a radical democrat, by which I mean someone who is a foe of wealth inequality. He describes Norman Thomas as "the bravest man I ever met," and of course Norman Thomas was the best-known democratic socialist of the 20th century. He ran for president several times. King was not a Marxist or a communist, but his radical love leads him to put poor and working people at the center. Look at the letter he wrote to Coretta in 1952. (The letter reads, in part, "I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic .... (Capitalism) started out with a noble and high motive ... but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against.")

Q: Of the American politicians on the scene today, maybe U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders would be closest to King.

A: No doubt about it.

Q: Of course, King's more radical positions — on poverty, on Vietnam and so on — cost him support not only among whites but also among some blacks, who maybe saw him as stretching himself too thin.

A: I think you're right, but it wasn't just a matter of stretching himself too thin. They saw him as moving on dangerous terrain, treacherous terrain. Once you begin to talk about wealth inequality, especially as it relates to corporations and big banks, or engage in an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, you are really getting at the center of a society that is very fearful of that kind of critique. But King also knew that there were a large number of black people who were deeply wedded to the status quo with the exception of issues of race. King wanted to be morally consistent and speak out against various things that were wrong, not just racism. But some people don't want to be morally consistent. They just want to be tied to their one issue.

Q: Maybe the most radical of King's beliefs were nonviolence and the idea of loving your enemy. You could argue that that was more courageous than the fighting back urged in other corners of the civil rights movement.

A: King was about militant nonviolence. It goes back to radical love: You don't begin by dehumanizing those who are dehumanizing you, because it contributes to the cycle of dehumanization in the world. And you're right: It takes unbelievable spiritual courage, moral fortitude, to engage in militant nonviolence. To put it another way, Martin King was an extremist of love. We live in a world where people are fearful of extremism, but King would say he was always trying to keep the flow of love in place. In that sense, he turned the world on its head.

Q: King kept tabs on human rights struggles in other countries, including South Africa and the Middle East. What do you think he would say about what's going on in the world today?

A: I think he would always keep track of collective insurgencies among poor and working people. He was concerned about the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, for example. He would have closely followed the Arab Spring. And certainly he would be very critical of the massive surveillance state that has emerged in America in the last five to 10 years. He would have approved of the movements trying to gain some accountability in U.S. foreign policy, such as drones being (used) on innocent people. I think he would march against drones.

Q: I hesitate to go there, but ...

A: Well, why not?

Q: So what would Dr. King say about the presidency of Barack Obama?

A: I think he would say things very much like what he said about elected politicians of his own day. He would celebrate the symbolic status (of having a black president), but he would examine what the real substance was. And if he saw that poor and working people were not at the center of public policy, he would be deeply, deeply upset. If he looked at the Obama administration and saw an intimate connection with Wall Street, he'd be very critical. If he saw drones being dropped on innocent people, he'd be very critical. If he saw rights and liberties violated by secret policies of the government, of the kind we've seen by the National Security Agency, he'd be very critical. One of the things I love most about Martin is that he was willing to sacrifice his popularity in favor of his integrity. He was an honest man, and he would tell the truth. Our problem is that we don't have enough people in this country, including black people, who are progressive and willing to sacrifice their popularity in order to tell the truth.

Q: And the truth being ...?

A: The truth being that wealth inequality has increased. The truth being that Wall Street is stronger than ever. The truth being that drones are still being used. The truth being that American citizens have been killed abroad by drones with no due process, no accountability, no judicial review. The truth being massive surveillance of citizens taking place every day. Martin King would be profoundly upset about that. He was a victim of surveillance, and had great solidarity with victims of surveillance.

Q: What do you make of the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C.?

A: I think it's important, because memory is crucial. And I salute my Alpha Phi Alpha brothers who put that together. The challenge, of course, is that Martin's legacy is never to be measured by bricks and mortar, but rather by the kind of lives that we live, and the kind of love and service that we render.

Q: A controversy has arisen in recent days around the movie "Selma," in which Dr. King features prominently. Have you seen the film?

A: Yes. It's a powerful movie.

Q: But some have questioned whether it accurately portrays President Johnson and his attitude toward the civil rights movement. Do you have an opinion on that?

A: Well, I don't like to begin with what is not accurately portrayed. What is accurately portrayed is the rich humanity not just of Martin King but of the movement, which was a multiracial movement. You had blacks and whites coming together and sacrificing, organizing and mobilizing the world. That's the first time we've had collective action put at the center of any kind of portrayal of Martin King on the screen. Secondly, what's accurate is the portrayal of King's own humanity. The movie shows his ups and downs, his faults as well as his extraordinary genius. Now, what is inaccurate is in fact the portrayal of Johnson. Johnson was a complex figure but also a historic figure in terms of pushing through antiracist legislation, and so I can understand people engaging in a critique of the film on that score. But I don't want to put the controversy about LBJ at center stage. What's more important is the way it portrays the movement, this ocean of everyday people, of which Martin King was one.

Q: People should go and see it?

A: Absolutely. People should not only go see it, but see it again.

Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based writer and photographer. Follow him on Twitter @KevinNance1.

"The Radical King"
By Martin Luther King Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, Beacon, 300 pages, $26.95
Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

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