Ten MLK Quotes From “The Radical King”


We have done Dr. Martin Luther King a great disservice. By pigeonholing him as a nonviolent civil rights activist of the ’60s, we rob ourselves of the ultimate message which underpinned his ministry. Justice is not some tool to be used when politically expedient, nor does it belong to some and not to others. It is a universal right of all humanity. But in a process which Dr. Cornel West delightfully refers to as the ‘Santaclausification of Dr. King’, the great American leader’s message was sanitized for mass consumption and soon forgotten. Every January, corporate media engages in a surreal memorial service; this memorial service presents Dr. King as some kind of milquetoast pacifist whose grand vision is now actualized in the country’s racially diverse workplace. You don’t hear broadcast his scathing critiques of croney capitalism, of America’s illegal wars, of the profane inequality between the rich and the poor. You don’t hear MSNBC quoting the FBI, who dubbed Dr. King “the most dangerous black man in America.” Not at all.  That’s why Dr. Cornel West’s “The Radical King”, a compilation of the democratic leader’s most simmering and subversive speeches, is so important…ESPECIALLY in this present moment we find ourselves. In reading these selected quotes from two of his greatest and most volatile speeches, one is met with the sad realization that, indeed, almost nothing has changed since Dr. King fell to a hail of bullets outside that motel in Memphis. Our responsibility presses upon us more urgently than ever. Who today will fight for justice and “break the silence of the night” as this true hero of humanity once did?

The Other America

“Now what we’ve got to do…is to attack the problem of poverty and really mobilize the forces of our country to have an all-out war against poverty, because what we have now is not even a good skirmish against poverty. I need not remind you that poverty, the gaps in our society, the gulfs between inordinate superfluous wealth and abject deadening poverty have brought about a great deal of despair, a great deal of tension, a great deal of bitterness.”

“The fact is that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed—that’s the long, sometimes tragic and turbulent story of history. And if people who are enslaved sit around and feel that freedom is some kind of lavish dish that will be passed out on a silver platter by the federal government or by the white man while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite, he will never get his freedom.”

“The forces that have the power to make a concession to the forces of justice and truth and right, but who refuse to do it and they follow the path of darkness still, are the forces that fail. We, as poor people, going to struggle for justice, can’t fail. If there is no response from the federal government, from the Congress, that’s the failure, not those who are struggling for justice.”

“The problem is America has had a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds on the question of justice. We’re going to Washington to say that if a man does not have a job or an income at that moment, you deprive him of life. You deprive him of liberty. And you deprive him of the pursuit of happiness. We’re going to demand that America live up to her promise. We’re organizing all over, and as I said, we aren’t going begging. We are going to demand justice.”

“I answered a man the other day who told me I should stick to civil rights, and not deal with the war thing and the war question in Vietnam. I told him that I had been fighting too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concerns. And the fact is that justice is indivisible; injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence

“Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

“The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy—and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us—not their fellow Vietnamese—the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go—primarily women and children and the aged.”

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented society”. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

“This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

“This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept—so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force—has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of men. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”

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