Reclaiming the Revolutionary MLK

The panel talking about the revolutionary politics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 15. From left to right: Rafael Avitia, Layla Darwish, Hajj Reza Nekumanesh, Aline Reed and Dan Yaseen. Photo by Peter Maiden
The panel talking about the revolutionary politics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 15. From left to right: Rafael Avitia, Layla Darwish, Hajj Reza Nekumanesh, Aline Reed and Dan Yaseen. Photo by Peter Maiden

Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Chaplain to the Empire or Prophet of the Resistance? His own actions and words make clear his revolutionary prophetic vision, and resist all attempts to make him safe, to make him a powerless icon to be dusted off once a year in a meaningless hypocritical ceremony.

The real Martin Luther King was an uncompromising revolutionary, and this year Fresno folks joined together to keep it real. “Reclaiming the Revolutionary MLK: What Would MLK Say About the Gaza Genocide” was an event that brought a diverse community together in West Fresno on his Jan. 15 birthday to learn, to celebrate and to demand a ceasefire.

A standing-room-only crowd came to Free AME Church and Community Center to hear a panel discussion and share experiences and even cake. Pastor Floyd D. Harris Jr., who had the foresight to conceive the idea of a celebration that would not be co-opted or whitewashed, greeted the group and introduced the panel, after “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The panel moderator, Hajj Reza Nekumanesh, is national director of clergy organizing for Faith in Action, and the panelists were Layla Darwish, a Palestinian-American who is co-founder of the Palestinian Freedom Project; Aline Reed, president of the Fresno Freedom School; Rafael Avitia, history teacher and co-chair of La Mesa Nacional de Brown Berets; and Dan Yaseen, Peace Fresno activist and co-founder and host of the long-running KFCF radio show, Speaking Truth to Empire.

Panelists contributed from their lived experience and scholarship to offer insight into King’s life and messages related to the events of today. Some common themes were as follows:

Hajj Reza Nekumanesh moderated the panel. Photo by Peter Maiden
Hajj Reza Nekumanesh moderated the panel. Photo by Peter Maiden

The Concept of the Triple Evils

Racism/colonialism, war/militarism and poverty/predatory capitalism are forms of violence that exist in a vicious cycle.

“We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together,” said King. “And you can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the other.

“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

Unity, Solidarity and Mutual Support

King stated, “I know that justice is indivisible, and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I’m concerned about justice for everybody the world over.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Minority and indigenous communities have been on the receiving end of oppression, and we have to be able to identify and confront the oppressor. As Malcolm X el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz truthfully said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Israel is a settler-colonial racist state. The history of conflict did not start in October 2023. There have been 100 years of Zionist colonization.

Palestinians are indigenous people on their own land. There is connectivity between indigenous struggles, the Black Liberation struggle, other anti-colonial struggles and Palestine.

 Darwish clearly stated our role as people of the United States, as $4 billion of our tax monies go as military aid to Israel, a military garrison state, constantly at war.

 Nekumanesh pointed out that both King and Malcolm were killed after embracing an internationalist vision and acting on it to hold the United States accountable for its actions.

Sticking to Principles: Truth Tellers versus “Truth Sellers”

King spoke the truth, regardless of whether others, even his allies, thought that it would be expedient to avoid speaking about issues other than racial discrimination in the narrowest sense. His “Beyond Vietnam” speech and anti-imperialist message, as Reed clearly pointed out, was unpopular, but it is only one of many examples showing that MLK would stand with the people of Gaza. He would say: No to Militarism; Ceasefire Now.

His message has been distorted, and it is white fragility that is at the core of whitewashing MLK.

Reed also noted that Fresno police have trained in Israel. “What do you need that military training for? Who are you going to shoot?” she asked.

Education

Avitia and other panelists emphasized education and economic analysis. Where there are wars, some few people are making a lot of money. Where does the money come from? Where does it go? We need to educate ourselves and others, educate our children.

Questions from the audience included the illuminating “What one book would you recommend?” Some recommended books are as follows:

  • The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by Peniel E. Joseph, a book that disproves the widespread myth that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X espoused diametrically opposed philosophies.
  • The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors is a collection of essays by Dr. Francis Cress Welsing, a physician specializing in general and child psychiatry, focusing on the global system of white supremacy and strategies for coping with racism in modern society.
  • Red Skin, White Masks Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition by Glen Sean Coulthard fundamentally questions prevailing ideas of settler colonization and Indigenous resistance.
  • The Atlas of Palestine (1917–1966) includes maps and photos, along with analysis of the Mandate, the Partition Plan, Palestine borders, land ownership, population composition, the 1948 war, al Nakba, the Armistice Lines, war crimes, destruction of the landscape, the disposition and confiscation of Palestinian property, water and agriculture and the retransformation of Palestine’s landscape.

Community leader Gloria Hernandez asked, “Why are they killing the journalists?” At least 83 Palestinian journalists and media workers were among the approximately 30,000 killed since Oct. 7. This is more than the number of journalists killed during the entire war in Vietnam. This is only in the last 100 days and does not include others like the late Shireen Abu Akleh, a prominent Palestinian-American correspondent who was shot in the head and killed by a bullet fired by an Israeli sniper last year.

Moving from Understanding to Action

Each panelist recommended an action:

  • Yaseen: Sign the petition to Rep. Jim Costa (D–Fresno) calling on Costa to ask for a ceasefire now. Keep asking Costa to represent his constituents—all of them, not just some—and to let Biden know that we need a ceasefire now.
  • Reed: Ask the City of Fresno for a ceasefire resolution.
  • Darwish: Vote locally and bring good people in. Raise our voices and participate in protests and vigils.
  • Avitia: Form a study group to read and discuss books that are real history. Leverage the power of organization and the use of social media.

Each year on the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., people who hated him and everything that he worked for, spoke and wrote for, went to jail for and ultimately died for, take his name in vain and cherry-pick his words to try to find something they can take out of context and distort to prop up their own sympathies with racism, war and economic injustice. Maybe some of this is ignorance, but—let’s be blunt—it’s willful ignorance.

Aline Reed was a panelist at a discussion of the revolutionary politics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Peter Maiden
Aline Reed was a panelist at a discussion of the revolutionary politics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Peter Maiden

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance,” King wrote in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?. “It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

In Fresno, people came together to learn and to act on our knowledge, to share community and to celebrate the real revolutionary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as to share the beautiful cake provided by Reed.

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