Angela Davis, MLK, and the “Intersectionality of Struggles”

By Joseph Orosco (April 6, 2017)

In an interview in her new collection, Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Angela Davis is asked about being a pioneer in developing the concept of intersectionality. She responds:

There were many pioneers of intersectionality but I do think it is important to acknowledge an organization that existed in New York in the late sixties and seventies called the Third World Women’s Alliance. That organization published a newspaper entitled Triple Jeopardy. Triple jeopardy was racism, sexism, and imperialism. Of course, imperialism reflected an international awareness of class issues. Many formations were attempting to bring these issues together. (p. 18)

Davis goes on to cite her own work in a lineage of pioneers that includes Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, bell hooks, and Michelle Wallace.

She rounds out her response by saying that there were many pioneers in this field,  but she wants to center her work in what she calls the “intersectionality of struggle” and not so much the intersectionality of “individual analysis”: “Initially intersectionality was about bodies and experiences. But now, how do we talk about bringing various social justice struggles together, across national borders?” (p. 19)

This way of talking about intersectionality struck me this week as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous Riverside speech “Beyond Vietnam”. In it, King spoke out publically for the first time against the Vietnam war and called on the United States to engage in a deep reflection about its role in promoting violence in the world. What is significant about this speech is that King says we need to recognize the intertwined “triple evils” of racism, capitalism, and militarism that have deeply infected most of our major social, political, and economic institutions. In the end of it, he called for a movement to initiate a “revolution of values” to restructure the foundation of US American society.

Mark Rudd has called this speech the “origin story” of the modern Left in the United States because it lays out the value foundation for social justice struggles ever since. I think there may be more to it than just a foundational document. If we take Davis’s distinction seriously, then we ought to think of King’s speech as one of the pioneering visions of what an “intersectionality of struggle” might look like.  If today we need to investigate how to strengthen the kind of the transnational solidarity that can link movements from Ferguson to Palestine and beyond, then King’s later work seems to be an important stepping stone.