You Might Be Surprised to Learn How Much MLK and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Have in Common

In this reflection, Chicago Unheard and Education Post contributor ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson offers history teachers some food for thought in helping students understand just how radical Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared in his day.


“God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”- Dr. King, “Strength to Love”, 1963

Although I’m not a history teacher, I love history and work hard to teach true history to my daughters. One of the hardest things about teaching history to young people is that the past is over. Often there is no real comparison between what happened then and what is happening now.

But sometimes, we get lucky, even when the “luck” is that a difficult situation persists from the past into the present. Unluckily for us, today’s economic and political problems remain eerily similar to those of Dr. Martin Luther King’s day. Racism and poverty are still with us. And, luckily for us, there is a current political figure whose radical calls for action to end both racism and poverty mirror King’s positions. And the reactions to this figure now are startlingly similar to the reactions King received in his day.

If we really want to teach young people how Americans felt about Dr. King, we can analyze the current political coverage of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Brooklyn’s Ocasio-Cortez is today’s “it” politician, dominating the news stories and political talk shows. She is 29 years old, full of energy and passion and, like King, unapologetic in her calls for a socialist-style redistribution of wealth.

I can say with certainty that anyone who doesn’t like Ocasio-Cortez today would not have liked Martin Luther King back in the 1960s. Like Ocasio-Cortez is doing now, King then unapologetically called for socialist actions to end poverty. He was killed while supporting Memphis sanitation workers striking for higher pay.

Ocasio-Cortez Takes Heat for Ideas Less Radical Than King’s

Ocasio-Cortez is feeling the fire from both Republicans and Democrats who accuse of her being “too liberal,” “too outspoken, “tooinexperienced,” and—my favorite‚“trying to do too much, too fast.” Every one of these criticisms was leveled at King, too.

To Whoopi Goldberg and anyone else who feels Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is too young and should be quiet and “learn from her elders,” but will celebrate King Day on Monday, I would like to point out a number of parallels between them. Just for starters, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to Congress at age 29, and Martin Luther King launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott at age 26.

Their political positions line up closely, too. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls for an increase in the minimum wage to make it a living wage.

Here’s what King had to say about income:

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective – the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed matter: the guaranteed income.”  (Source: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?  published 1967.)

Ocasio-Cortez has called for a 70 percent tax increase on the highest wage earners in the United States. King also called for redistributive measures to reduce inequality and share wealth:  “God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.” (Source, “Strength to Love”, published 1963.)

Many Americans, both liberals and conservatives, are taking turns throwing daggers at Ocasio-Cortez.  Former U.S. Senator and former Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman said of Ocasio-Cortez: She just takes us back to the big-spending, big-taxing Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party is not going to succeed that way.”

King Was A Socialist Who Took Lots of Flak, Too

When we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, these and other critics of Ocasio-Cortez will be quoting him and holding him up as a role model. But the truth is, just like Ocasio-Cortez, King took a lot of flak from powerful people who opposed his radical, socialist agenda. When he was an organizer, he was not popular with Americans. In fact, his national approval ratings never exceeded 50 percent when he was alive.

As we celebrate King’s life and work, let’s not whitewash his policies and legacies. We need to teach the truth: King was a socialist who worked to end global poverty. Anyone who has a problem with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would have hated Dr. King. The greatest lesson we can give our children on King Day is the complete story of his movement, both against racism and against poverty.

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”- Dr. King, Nobel Peace Prize address, 1964


Cross-posted by permission from the ShaRhonda Tribune.

Photo by Jerónimo Bernot on Unsplash

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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