The Forgotten Socialist History of Martin Luther King Jr.

King believed that a multiracial working-class movement was required to overcome the failings of capitalism.

Matthew Miles Goodrich January 15, 2018

Martin Luther King Jr.'s goal was unflinching: the “total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.” (State Library and Archives of Florida)

In 195223-year-old Mar­tin Luther King Jr. wrote a love let­ter to Coret­ta Scott. Along with coos of affec­tion and apolo­gies for his hasty hand­writ­ing, he described his feel­ings not just toward his future wife, but also toward America’s eco­nom­ic sys­tem. I am much more social­is­tic in my eco­nom­ic the­o­ry than cap­i­tal­is­tic,” he admit­ted to his then-girl­friend, con­clud­ing that cap­i­tal­ism has out­lived its usefulness.”

For King, the only solution to America’s crisis of poverty was the redistribution of wealth.

King com­posed these words as a grad stu­dent on the tail end of his first year at the Boston Uni­ver­si­ty School of The­ol­o­gy. And far from rep­re­sent­ing just the utopi­anism of youth, the views expressed in the let­ter would go on to inform King’s eco­nom­ic vision through­out his life.

As Amer­i­cans hon­or King on his birth­day, it is impor­tant to remem­ber that the civ­il rights icon was also a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist, com­mit­ted to build­ing a broad move­ment to over­come the fail­ings of cap­i­tal­ism and achieve both racial and eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty for all people.

Cap­i­tal­ism has brought about a sys­tem that takes neces­si­ties from the mass­es to give lux­u­ries to the class­es,” King wrote in his 1952 let­ter to Scott. He would echo the sen­ti­ment 15 years lat­er in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Com­mu­ni­ty?: Cap­i­tal­ism has often left a gap of super­flu­ous wealth and abject pover­ty [and] has cre­at­ed con­di­tions per­mit­ting neces­si­ties to be tak­en from the many to give lux­u­ries to the few.”

In his famous 1967 River­side Church speech, King thun­dered, When machines and com­put­ers, prof­it motives and prop­er­ty rights are con­sid­ered more impor­tant than peo­ple, the giant triplets of racism, mate­ri­al­ism and mil­i­tarism are inca­pable of being conquered.”

And in an inter­view with the New York Times in 1968, King described his work with the South­ern Chris­t­ian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence (SCLC) this way, In a sense, you could say we are engaged in the class struggle.”

Speak­ing at a staff retreat of the SCLC in 1966, King said that some­thing is wrong … with cap­i­tal­ism” and there must be a bet­ter dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth” in the coun­try. Maybe,” he sug­gest­ed, Amer­i­ca must move toward a demo­c­ra­t­ic socialism.”

In Where Do We Go From Here, which calls for the full eman­ci­pa­tion and equal­i­ty of Negroes and the poor,” King advo­cates poli­cies in line with a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist pro­gram: a guar­an­teed annu­al income, con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ments to secure social and eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty, and great­ly expand­ed pub­lic hous­ing. He endors­es the Free­dom Bud­get put for­ward by social­ist activist A. Philip Ran­dolph, which includ­ed such poli­cies as a jobs guar­an­tee, a liv­ing wage and uni­ver­sal health­care. He also out­lines how eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty can cir­cum­scribe civ­il rights. While the wealthy enjoy easy access to lawyers and the courts, the poor, how­ev­er, are help­less,” he writes.

This empha­sis on pover­ty is not always reflect­ed in con­tem­po­rary teach­ings about King, which tend to focus strict­ly on his advo­ca­cy for civ­il rights. But Where Do We Go From Here and the final project of King’s life — the Poor People’s Cam­paign — show that King’s dream includ­ed a future of both racial and eco­nom­ic equality.

What good is hav­ing the right to sit at a lunch counter,” King is wide­ly quot­ed as ask­ing, if you can’t afford to buy a ham­burg­er?” In King’s view, the Greens­boro lunch counter sit-ins, the vot­er reg­is­tra­tion dri­ves across the South and the Sel­ma to Mont­gomery march com­prised but the first phase of the civ­il rights move­ment. In Where Do We Go From Here, King called the vic­to­ries of the move­ment up that point in 1967 a foothold, no more” in the strug­gle for free­dom. Only a cam­paign to real­ize eco­nom­ic as well as racial jus­tice could win true equal­i­ty for African-Amer­i­cans. In nam­ing his goal, King was unflinch­ing: the total, direct, and imme­di­ate abo­li­tion of poverty.”

The short­com­ing of the first phase of the civ­il rights move­ment, to King, was its empha­sis on oppor­tu­ni­ty rather than guar­an­tees. The abil­i­ty to buy a ham­burg­er at a lunch counter with­out harass­ment did not guar­an­tee that the hun­gry would be fed. Access to the bal­lot box did not guar­an­tee anti-racist leg­is­la­tion. The end of Jim Crow laws did not guar­an­tee the flour­ish­ing of African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties. Decen­cy did not guar­an­tee equality.

Some white peo­ple had gone along with the fight for access and oppor­tu­ni­ty, King con­clud­ed, because it cost them noth­ing. Jobs,” how­ev­er, are hard­er and cost­lier to cre­ate than vot­ing rolls.” When African-Amer­i­cans sought not only to be treat­ed with dig­ni­ty, but guar­an­teed fair hous­ing and edu­ca­tion, many whites aban­doned the move­ment. In King’s words, as soon as he demand­ed the real­iza­tion of equal­i­ty” — the sec­ond phase of the civ­il rights move­ment — he dis­cov­ered whites sud­den­ly indifferent.

King con­sid­ered the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign to be the vehi­cle for this next phase of the move­ment pre­cise­ly because it offered both mate­r­i­al advances and the poten­tial for stronger cross-racial orga­niz­ing. For King, only a mul­tira­cial work­ing-class move­ment, which the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign aspired to be, could guar­an­tee both racial and eco­nom­ic equality.

King was dis­gust­ed by the jux­ta­po­si­tion of deca­dence and des­ti­tu­tion in Amer­i­ca. We com­press our abun­dance into the overfed mouths of the mid­dle and upper class­es until they gag with super­fluity,” he fumed. Quot­ing social jus­tice advo­cate Hyman Book­binder, King wrote that end­ing pover­ty in Amer­i­ca mere­ly requires demand­ing that the rich become even rich­er at a slow­er rate.”

For King, the only solu­tion to America’s cri­sis of pover­ty was the redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth. In a 1961 speech to the Negro Amer­i­can Labor Coun­cil, King declared, Call it democ­ra­cy, or call it demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism, but there must be a bet­ter dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth with­in this coun­try for all God’s children.”

From his ear­ly let­ters to Coret­ta Scott until his final days, King put for­ward a vision of a soci­ety that pro­vides equal­i­ty for peo­ple of all races and back­grounds. This is the cause King spent his life fight­ing for. And it is one we should recom­mit to as we hon­or his legacy.

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