The 2020 Candidates Can’t Sanitise Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy

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On 20 January, Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Day, VICE News and Cashmere Originals will partner to present the 2020 Iowa Democratic Presidential Black & Brown Forum
It is meaningful for this forum to take place on MLK Day, when we celebrate the life and mourn the death of this country’s most respected civil rights leader. But if, during this forum, the candidates’ statements don’t reflect King’s true legacy — and not the sanitized one we are so often taught — that meaning will be diluted. 
Throughout King’s time as a civil rights leader, government agencies, including the FBI, were dedicated to “neutralising” the brilliant orator with a thirst for justice. They viewed him as a major threat. It’s ironic, then, that after his assassination in 1968, the public has also neutralised King in its recasting of him as a meek leader who only dreamed of unity and peace. This narrow interpretation of him obscures the radicalism that informed his brilliance. If the candidates want to honour King and advocate for communities of colour, they must understand that King believed a “radical redistribution of economic and political power” was required for that unity and peace to manifest.
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Established in 1984, the forum is currently only one of its kind, dedicated to bringing issues that heavily impact communities of colour, including criminal justice, immigration, education, economic development, and health, to the forefront of the political conversation. 
The forum’s purpose is to encourage solidarity among communities of colour, which includes the Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. The presidential candidates will also get the opportunity to tell voters of colour how they will use the power of the office to seek justice for our communities. 
The candidates interviewed this year will include Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
It’s wonderful to see so many candidates prioritize attending this forum, but it’s disappointing that promising former candidates of colour, including ex-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, will not be part of the conversation. 

What would it mean for these 2020 presidential candidates, many of whom seem to embody the white moderates King was so wary of, to use their policies to honour his legacy? 

What would it mean for these 2020 presidential candidates, many of whom seem to embody the white moderates King was so wary of, to use their policies to honour his legacy? 
To me, it means embracing the radicalism that King championed — radical love, radical justice, radical empathy, and radical societal transformation. Radicalism has become a taboo concept, as many Democratic voters reacting to the Trump administration feel that the most important thing is to be pragmatic. In the 2020 presidential race, the establishment and some candidates have met progressive policy proposals, from free college tuition to universal health care, the Green New Deal, and measures to reduce incarceration, with anxiety about costs and feasibility. The best way to honour him on this day would be for the candidates to root their own campaigns and policies in the values of King. 
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King fought for economic justice for all Americans. He stood with labour workers, with unions, and he called for heavy cuts to the military budget, so we could invest in education and health care, not bombs and death. King was against imperialism and war. Although it was incredibly dangerous to speak out, in April 1967, King gave a speech called “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence.” In that speech, King named the US as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” 
This statement would be shocking if any of the candidates echoed it during the Black and Brown forum, but the US is currently embedded in costly “forever wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, among others. The U.S. is also consistently increasing its nuclear program, instigating a conflict with Iran, and is the greatest contributor to global climate destruction. This moment requires a leader who is willing to be honest about the destructive impact this country is having all over the globe, and to fight for peace. 
King asserted that the Civil Rights Movement in America and the global fight against imperialism, neo-colonialism, and endless wars were intrinsically linked. Like his contemporaries in the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, King argued that Black people and the oppressed all over the globe should work together and love one another. If the 2020 candidates hope to lead with the radical solidarity that defined King’s work, then they must understand that putting “America First” is a losing proposition for humanity. Every candidate seems to be dedicated to that, as their proposed policies do not even advocate for the needs and rights of everyone in the US, let alone around the world. Continuing in King’s tradition means candidates should focus on welcoming refugees, fighting for the rights of Palestinians, helping the oppressed Uighur Muslims in China, stopping the destruction of Africa’s natural resources, and other global issues. 
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King also hated white supremacy and how it ravages everything in its wake. But he didn’t think he was enough for people to simply proclaim that they weren’t racist, or that they believed in equality. He pushed for people, especially those he called white moderates, to stand against white supremacy with greater conviction. King believed complacency and milquetoast protestations were more effective in promoting white supremacy than outright bigotry. 
If the 2020 candidates hope to show communities of colour that they are firmly against white supremacy, they must listen to King’s criticism and find areas where they can improve or continue the work they have been doing to fight white supremacy. For instance, Warren and Harris both proposed policies to reduce the Black maternal mortality rate. Of all the candidates, Sanders is the most committed to fighting for the rights of Palestinians. Biden, however, has made several condescending and offensive remarks about Black people. He also has no plans to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings, and in May 2019, a Greenpeace Evaluation found he had the second-worst climate policies of all the candidates.  Since immigration and climate destruction disproportionately impact communities of colour, this is especially concerning. 
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which King wrote in solitary confinement after being arrested for mass protest on 12 April 1963, King said, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” 
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When King realised that the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act didn’t lead to economic freedom for Black people, he said, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter, if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”

I think if King were here today, he’d ask, “What’s the point of ousting a tyrant if the people are still not free?” Removing Trump from office would not be enough for him.

Based on his writings, if King were in this moment of history, I don’t believe his main concern would be getting President Donald Trump out of office, as so many candidates seem to believe. Obviously, he would recognize the great danger Trump posed to the environment, immigrants, people of colour, disabled people, women — the list goes on and on.  
I think if King were here today, he’d ask, “What’s the point of ousting a tyrant if the people are still not free?” Removing Trump from office would not be enough for him. He would want his dream realised, the dream of a “radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
In our society’s deification of King, we have mainly focused on the dream he expressed in his historic 1963 speech during the March on Washington. 
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…”
We get teary-eyed and emotional at this line, but we have been less reluctant to address what King thought the cost of that future would be. Because, in the same speech, King promised, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the founda­tions of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.” 
Those bright days of justice have not emerged. The world is still plunged in injustice, and will continue to be unjust if we do not embrace radical change. We have not yet reached the mountaintop King saw so clearly. It is my hope that during this forum, the candidates express their desire to implement policies that will make it easier for everyone to reach the mountaintop, to touch the sky and feel the bright glow of freedom. 
Nylah Burton is a writer based in Washington DC. She covers mental health, social justice, and identity. She has bylines in New York Magazine, ZORA, and ESSENCE. Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed here are her own.
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