In editing The Radical King, Cornel West sought to restore the real Martin Luther King, Jr. whose radicalism has been stripped away over the decades leaving an anodyne MLK whose name can grace boulevards and whose words can be quoted to defend oppression as easily as they can inspired the oppressed. How many times have racists quoted “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” in order to defend structural racism? There is a real need to restore King, the radical, the socialist, the revolutionary.
While I have been reading The Radical King, a group of militant Wise Use anti-government grifters have occupied Malheur Wildlife Refuge in what they claim is a nonviolent protest—a claim echoed with unthinking and unquestioning irresponsibility by the press. The Radical King offers a powerful counter to their claims of nonviolence and exposes the injustice of their cause. When King defines what it means to be nonviolent, their heavily armed “nonviolence” is exposed as a lie. When King explains when civil disobedience is justified by unjust laws, their claims to be seeking justice are exposed as selfishness and greed, as antidemocratic and fundamentally unjust. I could not think of a better book to be reading at this time.
The Radical King is not without flaw. For example, West includes a speech “Where Do We Go From Here?” as well as another speech called “Black Power” and an except from the book, “Where Do We Go From Here?” which, together, become repetitive. While King was writing his book, he was quoting from it liberally and word for word. I would rather have a different selection from the book or even leave the book out for some other selection altogether and keep just the two speeches. If someone were just picking up The Radical King and reading a bit now and again, and not reading it from cover to cover, they will not be bothered by it. Reading it all at once, though, I sometimes began to wonder if i lost my place and had gone back to an earlier part of the book.
I like the four theme in which West arranged the book, the twenty-one selections organized around the themes of radical love, prophetic vision, resistance against empire and white supremacy, and overcoming poverty and hatred. These themes are a good organizing principle for his work and an insight into King’s priorities and principles.
I was less impressed with Cornel’s West introduction. West writes to impress more than to explain. The contrast between the clarity of King’s prose and the opacity of West’s is striking and explains why King was able to unite people so effectively while West has struggled. West’s writing is pompous and bombastic while King’s is humane and explanatory. Sometimes King’s metaphors go pretty far afield. (“High blood pressure of creeds and anemia of deeds” appears more than once.) but they are used to make his language colorful, interesting and to draw people in. He never tries to elevate himself above his listeners or readers with deliberately difficult prose such as West here, “King’s work and witness is a kind of prophetic pneumatology in motion—a kinetic orality, passionate physicality, and combative spirituality that wed mind to movement…” Is that a sentence from someone with a desire to communicate, to share his love and admiration for King’s work? For West, it is more important that you know West is well-educated than that you understand that King’s work was a prophetic expression of the power of the soul, of oral tradition wedded to nonviolent resistance and an empowered spirituality.
The idea of an empowered spirituality is important. King often speaks of the failure of people on the side of good to do the necessary to get power. Because power is so often in the hands of those who do evil, people of good will often avoid seeking power because they think power is evil, but power is merely the ability to work your will and if your will is good, if it is informed by love and justice, then power is also informed by love and justice. I am constantly urging people to read Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon where she also addresses the quandary that people face when trying to create change—shrinking from power for fear that power is evil. King addresses that same quandary effectively several times. It should be read by all those who would rather lose than do right if it involves compromise.
I like The Radical King and recommend it. I think it is important to remember King as he was and find inspiration in the real man, not the stuffed teddy bear King celebrated on his birthday by people who oppose everything he believed in. Reading this book, one cannot help but wonder what our world would be like if James Earl Ray had slipped in that bathtub in Memphis and fallen, maybe broken a leg and been unable to fire. Would we be in this bitter place, divided by anger and distrust? I do not know, but I am pretty sure we would have been in a better place.