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The Radical King: Perspectives of One Born in the Shadow of a King

33 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2011  

Camille A Nelson

American University - Washington College of Law

Date Written: February 9, 2011


This essay discusses the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and how that legacy has been cultivated to ignore the more radical and revolutionary elements of his rhetoric. His image and legacy have been mainstreamed and cultivated from his most centrist passages from the “I Have a Dream Speech.” As a result, society has sought to construct the antithetical image of a figure who is both moderate and revolutionary. This partial remembrance threatens to minimize his true legacy and his lasting importance.

Several aspects of Dr. King’s legacy have been inaccurately remembered or minimized, such as his calls to recognize and correct the debilitating effects of poverty, the culpability of the white liberal moderate in American racism, and the corrosive societal effect of the Vietnam War. He called the white moderate to task in his “Letter from a Birmingham Prison,” and he drew connections between the Vietnam War and the United States’ failure to address domestic socio-economic issues. Dr. King saw connections between American poverty and ‘de facto’ segregation, and he recognized that economic disparity had as much to do with racial imbalance as disparity in the law.

Dr. King not only demanded equality, but the eradication of the conditions that lead to that equality. He saw little utility in equality at law if it was accomplished “in a world society stricken by poverty and in a universe doomed to extinction by war.” This essay calls attention to the aspects of Dr. King’s legacy which were the most revolutionary and least remembered: the aspects of his teaching that recognize the interconnectedness of systems of oppression and the need to meet that oppression through radical change in both economic and social policy.

Suggested Citation

Nelson, Camille A, The Radical King: Perspectives of One Born in the Shadow of a King (February 9, 2011). New York University Review of Law & Social Change, Vol. 32, p. 485, 2008. Available at SSRN:

Camille Nelson (Contact Author)

American University - Washington College of Law ( email )

4300 Nebraska Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States


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