The radical King: dignity, labour and MLK

By Simon Barrow
January 20, 2015

While some heavily red (in this case, right-wing Republican) areas of the United States downplay or even ignore Martin Luther King Day, it has generally won widespread support across the country since it was introduced in 1983 to mark his birthday.

However, some concerned with King's legacy believe that this popularity has come at a price: the domestication and watering down of his true beliefs and their inherent radicalism.

In his introduction to a newly published anthology of King speeches and writings, Professor Cornel West writes: "This book unearths a radical King that we can no longer sanitise."

West portrays a charismatic leader who was "anti-imperial, anti-colonial, anti-racist" and embodied "democratic socialist sentiments" as well as a grounding of these convictions in subversive, biblical Christian faith and theology.

This includes, for example, solidarity with working people and labour unions.

In chapter 21 of The Radical King (Random House, 2015), West tells the story of how, on 12 February 1968 – President Lincoln's birthday – Dr King travelled from state to state, garnering rousing support for the Poor People's Campaign.

More than a thousand sanitation workers in Memphis had walked off the job. A month into the strike, on 18 March, strikers and their supporters packed Bishop Charles Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ in what the Rev James Lawson would describe as a "sardine atmosphere."

With few notes, Martin Luther King addressed the overflowing church by connecting the localised strike to the plight of all workers, especially those in the service economy.

You can read the full speech delivered by Dr King in support of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, just two weeks before he was assassinated in the same city, here:

Monday 19 January is the date of Martin Luther King Day and MLK Service Day in the USA and beyond in 2015.

Professor Cornel West is one of America's most provocative public intellectuals; a champion for racial justice through the traditions of the black Church, progressive politics and jazz music.

* Cornel West:, and @CornelWest on Twitter.

* 'Martin Luther King Was a Radical, Not a Saint', by Peter Dreier, Truthout:

* 'Black Lives Matter / Black Life Matters: A Conversation with Patrisse Cullors and Darnell L. Moore', by Monica J. Casper, The Feminist Wire:

* 'Martin Luther King's Vision of Justice', by Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post Writers Group:

* The Radical King, edited by Cornel West:


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He is a practical theologian, and is involved in the trade union movement through the National Union of Journalists and the Edinburgh TUC.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.