Martin Luther King Jr (author) and Cornel West (editor), The Radical King (2015) — Book Review

© 2015 Peter Free


29 September 2015



A concisely convenient compilation of Dr. King’s more emphatically stated writings


The Radical King (Beacon Press, 2015) is a selection from Martin Luther King Jr's writings compiled by Professor Cornel West.


The book serves as an accessible summary of the core of Martin Luther King Jr’s:


(a) spiritual philosophy




(b) action-oriented thinking regarding non-violent social action.


The Radical King is part of a trilogy that begins with Black Prophetic Fire and hopes to end with the, as yet unpublished, Justice Matters.


As Dr. West intended — based on the comments he made in Black Prophetic FireThe Radical King clearly demonstrates how much our culture lost with regard to (a) spirit-based personal motivation and (b) soundly taken anti-discriminatory social action — after Dr. King and Malcolm X were murdered.



Professor West implicitly uses the term “radical” to mean inseparably bonded with Christ’s message


As West implies and King explicitly pointed out —Christ’s love is radical in that it requires us to love our enemies. In turn, radical love necessitates non-violent, confrontational action against an unjust world.


Therefore, Dr. King’s legacy is:


(a) not only about attaining civil rights —


but also about


(b) attaining and honoring the rights of poor and oppressed people everywhere — regardless of race, religion or culture.


Professor West, writing in Black Prophetic Fire, thinks that Martin Luther King Jr has been short-changed by the intentionally edited memory of him that remains in American culture. It is easier to deal with a mild and undemanding King than a radical one, who insists that we see the shortcomings of our too complacent spiritual and social understandings.



Sample — from Professor West’s editorial comments


With regard to King’s “leftist” economic leanings



In a speech to staff in 1966, King explained: “There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward democratic socialism.”


It is no accident that just prior to King’s death, 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of his opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America.


In King’s eyes, too many black leaders sacrificed the truth for access to power or reduced sacrificial love and service to selfish expediency and personal gain.


In stark contrast to this cowardice, King stated to his staff, “I’d rather be dead than afraid.”


© 2015 Martin Luther King Jr (author) and Cornel West (editor), The Radical King (Beacon Press, 2015) (at Introduction, pages ix-x) (extracts)



Samples — from Dr. King


Regarding enemies



Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to “love your enemies.”


How do we love our enemies?


First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. . . . [T]he evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.


Second, we must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. . . . [T]here is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.


Third, we must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding. . . . Perhaps the Greek language can clear our confusion . . . . The third word is agape understanding and creative redemptive goodwill for all men. An overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart.


Why should we love our enemies?


Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. . . . [H]ate scars the soul and distorts the personality. . . . [L]ove is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. . . . The darkness or racial injustice will be dispelled only by the light of forgiving love.


© 2015 Martin Luther King Jr (author) and Cornel West (editor), The Radical King (Beacon Press, 2015) (at pages 55-60) (extracts)


Regarding King’s journey to non-violence


Often the question has arisen concerning my own intellectual pilgrimage to nonviolence.


I came early to Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis. . . . I felt that he had fallen victim to the nineteenth-century “cult of inevitable progress’ which led him to a superficial optimism concerning man’s nature. Moreover, he came perilously close to identifying the Kingdom of God with a particular social and economic system.


It has been my conviction ever since . . . that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.


After reading Rauschenbusch, I turned to a serious study of the social and ethical theories of the great philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke.


During the Christmas holidays of 1949, I decided to spend my spare time reading Karl Marx . . . . I rejected [Communist writings’] materialistic interpretation of history. . . . History is ultimately guided by spirit, not matter. Second, I strongly disagreed with communism’s ethical relativism. . . . Third, I opposed communism’s political totalitarianism.


My reading of Marx also convinced me that truth is found neither in Marxism nor in traditional capitalism. Each represents a partial truth. Historically capitalism failed to see the truth in collective enterprise and Marxism failed to see the truth in individual enterprise.


Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. . . . I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.


My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil.


A . . . basic fact about nonviolent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. . . . Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Persons Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.


© 2015 Martin Luther King Jr (author) and Cornel West (editor), The Radical King (Beacon Press, 2015) (at pages 39-53) (extracts)



These few quotations are enough to give readers a sense of Martin Luther King Jr’s socio-spiritual greatness


Read carefully, they demonstrate the importance of faith to his view of the proper societal way forward.



Highly recommended


For people who did not share King’s times, The Radical King is arguably the best short introduction to Martin Luther King Jr’s thinking (and courage) available.


Being familiar with Dr. King’s speeches and writings, I came away saddened that almost 50 years have passed since he was active and I was reasonably young. The American situation today is, arguably, ethically and materially noticeably worse than it was then.


Perhaps Dr. King too easily dismissed humanity’s darkness, which Reinhold Niebuhr and Friedrich Nietzsche pointed to. But what could he have better done?


Malcolm X’s sharper message about taking and wielding power, blended with Dr. King’s prescription about resisting hatred’s soul pollution, may be the next social “medicament” to experiment with.


I miss these shining people and the now-stilled wave that they rode and inspired. Which itself points to the value of Professor West’s Black Prophetic Fire.