What the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr really had to say

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Bryan Renbaum has written an article for Los Angeles Post-Examiner proposing that the movie Selma illustrates the difference between the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and civil rights leaders of today. I encourage readers to take a look at it and then ask themselves a simple question: what have I learned about the movie?

It’s a useful question, because it draws our attention to one that’s much more important: what basis does Renbaum’s understanding of Martin Luther King Jr. have in actual history? The article begins with a cursory summary of Selma’s plot – nothing more than you would find in a commercial – and then the film is instantly forgotten, never to be mentioned again.

Instead, the article devolves into a mostly unrelated laundry list of Republican talking points about affirmative action, Ferguson, and Capitalism – all clumsily tacked to a caricature of King that resembles neither history nor the movie. The omissions are telling, and the errors of fact are even worse.

King and capitalism

A telling example: Renbaum scolds all of the “disingenuous claims suggesting that … even Capitalism itself” is “inherently racist,” insisting that “King’s message was not to tear down American society and its institutions.”

Here is what King actually said:

“After Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”

Here is what King actually said:

“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars … Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it means that we are saying something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

Here is what King actually said:

“I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits…[but] today capitalism has outlived its usefulness…Our economic system is going through a radical change, and certainly this change is needed. I would certainly welcome the day to come when there will be a nationalization of industry.”

One could go on. These are not obscure passages. One cannot look at King’s life with both eyes open and miss his repeated, strident and explicit argument that Capitalism was fully complicit in the oppression of black Americans. King’s hopes for a “nationalization of industry” are if anything well to the left of the modern black leaders that Renbaum criticizes.

King’s legacy

A mistake this egregious and demonstrable should give us pause when Renbaum scolds the black community about “King’s message.” Unfortunately, such mistakes riddle the entire article, which manages to misunderstand King’s ideas about private property, law enforcement, affirmative action, voting rights, and so on.

Here, the politically correct move would be to politely give Renbaum the benefit of a doubt, pretend that these mistakes are just that – mistakes – and ignore the fact that his mistakes always just-so-happen to correspond to the political agenda of the modern Republican party.

But here, Renbaum leaves his critics in a bind: because it is “political correctness,” he insists, that “prevents honest individuals from working together to improve race relations.”

Should we keep pretending that right-wing revisions of Martin Luther King’s history are just innocent mistakes? Or should we throw off “the constraints of political correctness” and have a conversation about more sinister motives? Maybe Capitalists just want to save Capitalism, and don’t really care what King had to say about it either way. Is that too blunt?