A revolutionary is one who self-consciously advocates collective action to remake a society’s defining institutions through unconventional action, from below. Not just in the last years of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was one such revolutionary.
Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1963:
Summer came, and the weather was beautiful. But the climate, the social climate of American life, erupted into lightning flashes, trembled with thunder and vibrated to the relentless, growing rain of protest come to life through the land. Explosively, America’s third revolution—the Negro Revolution—had begun.
For the first time in the long and turbulent history of the nation, almost one thousand cities were engulfed in civil turmoil, with violence trembling just below the surface. Reminiscent of the French Revolution of 1789, the streets had become a battleground; just as they had become the battleground in the 1830’s of England’s tumultuous Chartist movement. As in these two revolutions, a submerged social group, propelled by a burning need for justice, lifting itself with sudden swiftness, moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger, created an uprising so powerful that it shook a huge society from its comfortable base.
Never in American history had a group seized the streets, the squares, the sacrosanct business thoroughfares and the marbled halls of government to protest and proclaim the unendurability of their oppression. Had room-sized machines turned human, burst from the plants that housed them and stalked the land in revolt, the nation could not have been more amazed. Undeniably, the Negro had been an object of sympathy and wore the scars of deep grievances, but the nation had come to count on him as a creature who could quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait. He was well trained in service and, whatever the provocation, he neither pushed back nor spoke back.
Just as lightning makes no sound until it strikes, the Negro revolution generated quietly. But when it struck, the revealing flash of its power and the impact of its sincerity fervor displayed a force of a frightening intensity. Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper. The storm clouds did not release a “gentle rain from heaven,” but a whirlwind, which has not yet spent its force or attained its full momentum.
Martin Luther King, 1968:
There is a second group of young people, presently small in number but dynamic and growing. They are the radicals. They range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. All of them agree that only by structural change can current evils be eliminated because the roots are in the system rather than in man or in faulty operations. This is a new breed of radicals. Very few adhere to any established ideology or dogma: Some borrow from old doctrines of revolution, but practically all of them suspend judgment on what the form of the new society must be. They are in serious revolt against old values and have not yet concretely formulated the new ones. … Ironically, their rebellion comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. They tried to build racial equality and met tenacious and vicious opposition. They worked to end the Vietnam war and experienced futility.
In their concern for higher social values [the radicals] were thwarted by a combination of material abundance and spiritual poverty that stifled a pure creative outlook. And so they seek a fresh start with new rules in a new order. … Their radicalism grows because the power structure of today is unrelenting in defending not only its social system but the evils it contains. … Whether they read Gandhi or Fanon, all the radicals understand the need for action—direct, self-transforming and structure-transforming action. This may be their most creative collective insight.
This second passage comes from “A New Sense of Direction,” one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. If you want to read one piece on MLK’s strategic thinking, after a lifetime of organizing, this is it. On the other hand, if you want to read a whole book, buy Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr, and donate it to a library when you’re done.
See also: Martin Luther King on Riots and Property Destruction.