Many radical leaders of the past have had their messages diluted over time, Cunningham explains. He argues that this has played a part in preventing today's activists from making more progress than they do. - Photo via

There’s an old American tradition of stripping radical figures of their true nature. Any lick of radical political reform that poked or pried at the existing power structure is watered down into a version far from its original form.

This is not only revisionist, but it distorts reality for future generations and how they historicize themselves in this broader narrative of progress. An isolated perception is created despite them being another link in the decades-long fight for the “moral arc towards justice.”

This phenomenon creates a widespread sense of disillusionment for younger generations looking to take action against their “new” struggles, instead of continuing from generations past. We have a responsibility to engage with these figures honestly, and to preserve and amplify living voices and their struggle for progress. 

To demonstrate this phenomenon, let’s first take a look at Martin Luther King Jr. To many Americans, MLK is remembered for marching, singing and a vague “nonviolence,” but this is such an oversimplified version of his politics and legacy that it is practically fabrication.

The domineering forces within society operate much like a superorganism with large institutions such as the United States Congress, and less concrete forms such as religious or ideological beliefs that make up this system. When an outside force presents real or imagined threat to the political elite or ruling class, they defend this power by any means. Similarly, those that align themselves with this social order will defend against this “threat” as well, going to great lengths to do so. 

MLK sought to penetrate this force tactfully. His use of nonviolence couldn’t be misconstrued in the media, his unifying rhetoric could not anger the white majority and his message posed real, radical change. 

The intricacy of this approach is described in MLK’s book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” In the chapter titled “Racism and The White Backlash,” King discusses openly how white fragility holds much say in the make-or-break of his movement. He says that if the mob of white America decides his movement is unworthy, that media, popular discourse and outward violence would overwrite it. MLK even suggests that appeasing the white majority would aid the advancement of his own people, and ultimately that a “completely, direct and immediate abolition of poverty” is vital to reaching his goals.

King expresses his disappointment with past reforms that were “indirect” and takes it one step further with “the guaranteed income.” King explicitly states how historical understandings of poverty “as a measure of one’s abilities and talents” fall short, and this notion blindingly blames the poor as “inferior and incompetent.”

But this level of precision wasn’t universal for Black liberation, nor was it a requirement. Many Black organizers took a stance that was overt in challenging white supremacy power through community-funded socialized programs and exercising their Second Amendment rights. With that came a backlash from the guardians of this power. 

Let’s look at Fred Hampton, a Marxist-Leninist and Black Panther Party leader.

Hampton sought to create what the world around him couldn’t. At the young age of 20, he became the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and hoped to assume this role at the national level. Hampton took on a strategy of establishing solidarity with other leftist groups such as the Young Patriots and the Young Lords, forming the Rainbow Coalition, and even established a broader coalition with goals of decreasing gang violence. From here, he helped establish a political action committee to support groups in demonstrations, strikes and protests. 

He began working within the Black Panther Party, with his notable accomplishments including a children’s free breakfast program, one that fulfilled aspirations of the party’s founder, Huey Newton. Hampton established a healthcare clinic — free of charge — that tested for sickle cell anemia. In fact, he saw the historical connections between the development of capitalism and racism in America, stating in a speech “that when they brought slaves over here, it was to take money… That means, through historical fact, racism had to come from capitalism. It had to be capitalism first and racism was a by-product of that.”

The success of the Black Panther Party in combating racism in Chicago, along with class solidarity, is one that overtly threatened the power of the white political and social order. Hampton was shot and killed by the FBI in what is now considered an assassination; one that the media claimed was justified by claiming Hampton shot as well, despite all the bullets traveling in one direction and an autopsy suggesting he was sedated prior to the incident. The FBI justified their actions under the veil of “criminality.”

Many know him by his most famous quote “You can jail a revolutionary but you can never jail a revolution.” To this day, Hampton is often quoted when it’s convenient, and he’s cut off when it is not; sometimes by U.S. senators. His radical nature deserves no reformation, no rewriting and no stripped down delivery. 

If any of this inspires you to engage with leftist politics that support or engage in combating racism, classism and the evils of capitalism, consider joining Rowan Progressives this Friday at 7 p.m. for a discussion on Hampton’s life and legacy. We’ll also be joined by Eric Jenkins, a political organizer, activist and active member of Philadelphia Socialist Alternative. Message @rowanprogs on Instagram to join our Discord and email list.

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