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DANIELS: MLK — Militant of the 21st Century

Lee A. Daniels | 1/22/2014, 3 p.m.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington Courtesy Photo

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 13-year life on the national stage brilliantly represented the courage it took in those decades to challenge the seemingly overwhelming power of the South’s racist power structure. Far less acknowledged is the courage it took for King – after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and his being awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize – to resist the temptations of partial success and his own fame.

Instead, King kept moving leftward, to confront the racial and economic injustice that had created and maintained the Black ghettos of the North, and the national hubris that had led America into the quagmire of war in Southeast Asia.

For this he was pilloried by President Lyndon B. Johnson and much of the White liberal establishment, and a good portion of the civil rights and Black political establishment, too. His insistence that nonviolence was still a viable means of social change was ridiculed, as were his plans to stage a multiracial Poor Peoples March on Washington and involve himself in the bitter sanitation worker’s strike in Memphis, Tenn.

But those difficult years were actually King’s finest hours. At the moment of his assassination, he was standing where he had begun his public life: with ordinary Black people who were being unjustly denied their human rights.

King’s refusal to submit offers a lesson to take to heart at this moment when conservative politicians and theorists are trying to restore inequality of opportunity as the law of the land.

It tells us we should adopt King as The Militant of the 21st Century, too.

Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in "Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent,” to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in March.