By Val Reynoso
I had read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” before and after reading it again, it basically just reaffirmed the preconceived notions I already had about MLK and his politics.
I view MLK as the more liberal, nonviolent and religious version of Malcolm X, and while I do prefer Malcolm X to MLK, I still do admire MLK. I have respect for MLK for all the anti-racist work he did during the Civil Rights Movement, but I do still have my qualms about him.
In his letter, he said “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” which is historically and undeniably true; however, the irony in his statement is in the nonviolent methods he tends to choose in order to attain Black liberation.
The reason why MLK was able to march through Selma is because radical Black activists aggressively defended themselves and him physically from klansmen and other white supremacists in the way. Even MLK himself said a riot is the language of the unheard.
I agree that violence is bourgeois, it’s a tool used by capitalists in order to exploit marginalized people and make us complacent. Capitalism is violent, it’s imperialist, it’s patriarchal, it’s genocidal, it’s the root of virtually all oppressions and breeds poverty and racism. Marginalized people can only aggressively defend ourselves from our oppressors by all means and this is what Malcolm X understood better so than MLK did.
Nonviolent protest is a privileged position, you have to be seen as a first class citizen in order for it to work. The system you are governed under must also have a conscience in order for it to work, capitalism has no conscience, capitalism is driven solely by infinite profit extracted from finite resources and labor power of oppressed nationalities.
Due to this fact, nonviolent protests for will not and do not produce desired results unless you are white or a man or rich. Although MLK was dedicated to the anti-racist struggle and identified as a democratic-socialist, another qualm I have with him is his anti-communism.
In his letter he says “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.”
Advocacy for Jewish rights are important and communists know this; however, it is typical of anti-communists to compare communism to fascism when they are complete opposites in every way. While I agree that legality should not be used to define what constitutes as ethical because many atrocities were legal, such as chattel slavery and the holocaust, MLK does not have an understanding on Marxist views on religion.
Marx said that religion is the opium of the people, as in that oppressed people use religion as a way to alleviate themselves of the pain of oppression under capitalism. Marx was also Ashkenazi Jewish and Lenin was part Ashkenazi Jewish and Kalmyck. The reason why many Marxists have qualms about religion and especially European Christianity is because of the oppressive history they have in being used as tools to further marginalized Black and brown people.
For instance, racism was first codified in 15th century Spain through Christianity and the racial purity idea of “limpieza de la sangre,” which was driven by anti-Black and antisemitic sentiment and set the foundation for Spanish colonialism of the Americas and institutionalization of racism and castas.
English colonialism was inspired by the Spanish, and even the word “racism” is derived from the Spanish word “raza.” MLK also fails to see how capitalism is rooted in religious thought since it’s inspired by the Calvinist idea that poverty is a punishment for sin and wealth brings you closer to God and to heaven; it demonizes the poor and blames them for their own oppressions which are ironically a result of bourgeois greed and class stratification.
MLK had the right vision and eye for racial justice, but I believe he could have been more militant in his activism as Malcolm X was and be more supportive of communism which has historically proven to liberate oppressed nationalities.
Val Reynoso is a Politics and Human Rights undergrad, journalist and Marxist-Leninist activist.