“The selective misremembering of both Dr. King and the Black Panther Party is political.”
By Holly Genovese
In December 1967, just months before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced his Poor People’s Campaign, a radical anti-poverty crusade that aligned with the leader’s democratic socialist beliefs. King’s support of the Memphis Sanitation Strikers — the group he was supporting in Tennessee, where he was killed 50 years ago today — was part of his allegiance to the well-being of low-income people across the country.
In the recent discourse surrounding protests by members of the National Football League, pundits and politicians somehow believe that King would never disrupt traffic, block bridges, or protest the national anthem. Rumors that he was a conservative and that he was overwhelmingly supported by white people — which is the most glaring lie of all — are also common.
By the time of his death, his views were much more closely linked to the platforms of organizations like the Black Panther Party and, more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement than any conservative organization. In 1966, a Gallup poll revealed that Dr. King had a 32% approval rating — astonishing compared to his current popularity.
The Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 by two students, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, was known for its free breakfast program, political education classes, and belief in radical self-defense. In fact, the Black Panther Party was one of the most popular socialist organizations in U.S. history. But rumors about the Panthers — that they were violent, drug-addicted, and corrupt — were common, when in actuality, much of the on-the-ground membership was made up of women who used nonviolent and educational tactics to fight inequality alongside male activists. The Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Platform included demands for guaranteed income, affordable housing, and an opposition to the military, particularly the involvement of African-Americans in a military complex perceived as colonial.
The demands of the Panthers were not so distinct from the demands of Dr. King by the end of his life. But the mythology surrounding the Black Panther Party couldn’t be more different than the mythology surrounding Dr. King.
By the end of his life, King was organizing his Poor People’s Campaign, which he hoped would help unite poor and exploited people across the country. He was also vocally opposed to the Vietnam War. He wanted to create a “nonviolent army of the poor,” something that would terrify many of those defending the legacy of Dr. King today. And he was being tracked by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which at the same time was determined to destroy the Black Panther Party.
The platform of the Poor People’s Campaign involved a demand for $30 billion for “a real war on poverty” (a reference to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society Programs”), a guaranteed annual wage for all Americans, and construction of low-cost housing across the United States until “slums” were completely gone. The Poor People’s Campaign planned a march that would shut down major highways in Washington, D.C., and Dr. King also planned a demonstration called Resurrection City, which happened after his death.
And even before Dr. King decided to wage a war on poverty, some considered his his actions to be disruptive and “disrespectful”: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the 1965 march over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery, were all perceived as major disruptions, very similarly to the ways that black activists have been criticized for die-ins and football players are criticized for protesting the national anthem.
The selective misremembering of both Dr. King and the Black Panther Party is political. If we support the legacy of a depoliticized Dr. King and decry the legacy of radical groups like the Panthers, then conservatives have successfully coopted the origins of Black Lives Matter and other radical activists. Both he and the Panthers left a blueprint for resistance on a massive scale, from the redistribution of wealth and political education to free food programs and demands for equitable housing. As we decide how to honor the legacy of Dr. King on the 50th anniversary of his death, remember that ending poverty through disruption and protest was central to his beliefs. May it be central to ours.
Reposted from teenVOGUE.