Martin Luther King Jr. and the Socialist Within
Each year in January as King is honored in the eyes of the public, there is little mention of the demands of the man and his mission: his fight for economic justice.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was a Socialist and radical humanist at his core.”
To date, the image and memory of Martin Luther King Jr., social justice warrior, peace activist and civil rights icon in the United States, and around the world, has been manipulated, watered-down or diminished of meaning to serve the very forces of capitalist power and domination that the man spent his life in opposition to. In school textbooks in the U.S. for example, young people are taught about King the moderate man of peace, but not the radical King who, criticized by other civil-rights-leaders for speaking out against the Vietnam war, proclaimed, on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, the U.S. to be, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” By sanitizing the image of the man, they, corporate and governmental powers, not only control the narrative, but they dumb-down and oversimplify the message by lobotomizing the historical record. As W.E.B. Du Bois, American intellectual, asserted: “The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example: it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.” What Du Bois was saying is that by stripping, containing and distorting historical narratives the learner is robbed of the substance, nuance and otherness that history should provide. Each year in January as King is honored in the eyes of the public, there is little mention of the demands of the man and his mission: his fight for economic justice in a society that was built on inequality from the very start, “We can’t have a system where some of the people live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty.” King the radical has been passed-over and neutralized in order to make a moderate image of the man more digestible, not only to whitewash the general public and students alike, but to also pacify the capitalist and white supremacist power structures that he so fiercely opposed.
“There is little mention of the demands of the man and his mission: his fight for economic justice.”
In an early and intimate correspondence, written in 1952, to his then jeune amour Coretta Scott, King declared “I am more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.” When addressing a book sent to him by Coretta, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887, King expressed: “On the negative side ... Bellamy falls victim to the same error that most writers of Utopian societies fall victim ... idealism not tempered with realism.” King was a pragmatist who understood fully the cause and effect of a capitalist system that pushed aside the needs of its populous in the name of profit, “So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. So I think Bellamy is right in seeing the gradual decline of capitalism.” This letter reveals that King was an admitted Socialist and firm in his agreement with Bellamy’s prediction of the inevitable degeneration of capitalism.
Reflecting upon his longtime hero and mentor, Norman Thomas, King espoused the 1932 Socialist Presidential nominee’s views as an inspiration to his own antiwar stance concerning Vietnam in an article published in Pageant magazine in June 1965, “Thomas, a Presbyterian minister, found his interest in socialism stimulated by the antiwar declaration of the Socialist Party in 1917.” It was to President Franklin Roosevelt’s acclaim, that he, once in office, took on much of Thomas’ socialist platform when putting together his well-known New Deal program: “Old-age pensions for men and women 60 years old; Abolition of child labor; The six-hour day, five-day week with no wage reductions; Health insurance and maternity insurance; and, Adequate minimum wage laws.”
King, inspired by Thomas’ unorthodox socialist approach to the issues of his day, steadfastly admired his principled stand calling him “The Bravest Man I’ve Ever Met,” and embodied Thomas’ following sentiments in words and deeds, “The hope for the future lies in a new social and economic order which demands the abolition of the capitalist system.” The seeds were planted; the capitalist opponent and unyielding guardian of socialist values stood evident throughout King’s ministry.
“King was a pragmatist who understood fully the cause and effect of a capitalist system.”
January 10, 1957 marked the birthday of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, founded by Martin Luther King Jr. and his father, to fight for civil rights and economic fairness. Increasingly throughout the 1960s, King became more anticorporate; and, more explicitly judgmental of capitalism as a system of innate inequality. In May 1967, while speaking at a SCLC staff meeting, King pushed radical against the injustices baked into the fundamental structure of capitalism, as well as the corrupt and unethical political system that allowed it to ride roughshod over its own population, “We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” Meaning, the movement had to demand a radical-paradigm-shift in the administrative and monetary structures that undergirded the American system of capitalism, “We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together you cant [sic] really get rid of one without getting rid of the others the whole structure of American life must be changed.”
Again, in August 1967, at a SCLC annual conference, King asked, “Why are there forty million poor people in America? ... When you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth ... you begin to question the capitalistic economy.” King was insistent that the resistance to an unjust system of inequality had to arise. In fact, in that same speech, in defense of workers’ rights, King invoked Walter Reuther, leader of organized labor, founder of the United Auto Workers of America and civil rights activist, “Walter defined power one day. He said, power is the ability of a labor union like UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.’ That’s power.” King, the supporter of cooperative ethics, denoted unions and the ability of workers to bargain collectively against corporate supremacy as an essential tool in checkmating capital and its abuses.
“We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
As explained by historian Thomas Jackson, in his work From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice, King was definitive as to where public policy in the U.S. needed to go, “Policy must ‘reduce the gap’ between the poor and the majority by making the poverty line a percentage of median income." King argued, raising the poverty line, which was inordinately low in 1964, would bring a response to millions of working poor that President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty overlooked. In King’s estimation, the inadequacy of the government’s solution to the War on Poverty coupled with the war in Vietnam equaled a travesty that disproportionately punished the disenfranchised:
“[T]he war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons ... to die.... So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools ... I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
The war in Southeast Asia, in King’s view, was not only a brutal attack on a distant and poor “third-world” country halfway around the globe, but a direct assault on America’s poor and working class populace. Again, what King was asserting was that race, war and economics were inextricably woven within the fabric of the U.S. political economy.
A New York Times editorial, dated April 7, 1967, published just three days after King’s powerful antiwar declaration above, encapsulated the prevailing counter assessment of the time. By ignoring class altogether, the conservative view of the day was camouflaged by “temperance,” insisting that the war in Vietnam and racial injustice in the United States had nothing to do with each other, “The moral issues in Vietnam are less clear-cut than he suggests; the political strategy of uniting the peace movement and the civil rights movement could very well be disastrous for both causes.” The point this editorial avoided was the enormous sums of public funds spent on the war, and their violent social and economic impact domestically, which King defined as wasteful and destructive, “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money.” In place of King’s economic mandate, the editorial used an erroneous conflation designed to convince the reader that melding the anti-war movement with civil rights was more about coupling the issues of race and militarism rather than King’s actual emphasis, economic justice.
“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money.”
King first announced his Poor People's Campaign (a multiracial non-violent crusade focused on jobs and dignity for the poor) at a staff retreat for the SCLC in November 1967. After having crisscrossed America building an alliance for his PPC, gathering support through a coalition of Blacks, farm workers, Native Americans and poor Whites, King delivered a speech, on March 10, 1968, in NYC (just a month prior to his assassination), entitled “The Other America.” King sermonized before a union, Local 1199, mostly comprised of African Americans, “If all of labor were to follow your example of mobilizing ... our nation would be much closer to a swift settlement of that immoral, unjust, and ill-considered war.” It was this kind of tutelage, this kind of unifying, enlisting and organizing of King’s multiracial army of the poor and working class, that threatened the establishment, i.e., government officials, corporate elites and mainstream media. Furthermore, in that same speech, King challenged not just the establishment and its propaganda, but also those among his ranks that doubted the efficacy of his mission to end the war:
“I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war.”
King, the theologian, in defense of his anti-war stance, harkened back to the teachings of the social gospel as his grounding – itself, a radical pacifist document; and, a passionate plea for the rights and dignity of the poor.
On a prior date, April 14, 1967, at Stanford University, King had given a different version of the same speech, one in which he invoked Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, author and former slave. King publicly attacked the United States and its long vicious history of elite control, systematic racism and unjust class bigotry:
“This is why Frederick Douglas [sic] could say that emancipation for the Negro was freedom to hunger ... freedom without roofs to cover their heads. He went on to say that it was freedom without bread to eat, freedom without land to cultivate. It was freedom and famine at the same time.”
King’s acknowledgement of Douglass helps to clarify his radical view of the long and inhumane historical narrative, which defined America. He was telling his audience that in a system founded on greed, white supremacy and inequality, freedom was not “freedom” if one was Black or poor. Written from his cell years earlier, in 1963, in his now celebrated Letter From a Birmingham Jail, King penned, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”In a top-down system of cascading violence King, the shepherd, attempted to give voice to the voiceless and consciousness to the beleaguered masses.
“in a system founded on greed, white supremacy and inequality, freedom was not freedom.”
When matching the inequities of the American economic system against other systems, in May 1965, while speaking before the Negro American Labor Council, King lauded the Scandinavian modus of democratic socialism and demanded a fair and just redistribution of America’s affluence: “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.” Again, years earlier, from his jail cell in Birmingham, King, the radical humanist, had elegiacally weaved together the socialist values of the collective within faith, race and socioeconomic condition, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states ... We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Additionally, public statements like, “I think black people and poor people must organize themselves ... we must mobilize our political and economic power,” congealed King’s position as a “Communist,” as well as a dangerous man whose every move needed to be tracked. Even if one publicly condemned communism as King certainly did, as far back as his Atlanta sermon, given on September 8, 1953, asserting, “Let us begin by stating that communism and Christianity are at the bottom incompatible. One cannot be a true Christian and a true Communist simultaneously.” A open denunciation of communism of this sort mattered little to the foundations of power that were bitterly opposed to the rights and unification of Blacks, the poor and the working class, “Perhaps the quintessential example of a target of state surveillance was Martin Luther King Jr. The surveillance of King was carried out with great intensity by the FBI, in concert with local police forces.” The powers of the State were now solidified and King was the target of that solidification, “[King was] subject to increasing scrutiny and harassment from the FBI, which had wiretapped his phones since 1963,” however, it did not begin under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations; it began much earlier, as early as the first freedom marches in Montgomery Alabama in the mid-1950s.
The FBI directive, dated January 4, 1956, is proof positive that the U.S. government was purposefully investing manpower and resources into tracking King as early as 1955: “On 7 December , the FBI’s Mobile Office began forwarding information on the bus boycott to FBI director J Edgar Hoover.” The document, although redacted, reveals that the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge was working closely with a Montgomery Police Officer gathering, with intent, as much defamatory evidence as possible against King in order to take him and his non-violent call for social-justice down.
“I think black people and poor people must organize themselves.”
The security state not only tracked King’s every movement, but it also harassed him for years using an array of methods from penetrating surveillance to psychological coercion. The foundations of power were deeply distressed by King’s radical decrees, and, his non-violent movement of civil disobedience, “The FBI was so concerned about King’s radicalism and potential for inciting a black revolution that it deemed his activities a threat to national security.” In fact, the FBI sadistically mocked, taunted and provoked King to commit suicide in an anonymous letter sent to him November 21, 1964 - just nineteen-days prior to his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway:
“You are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that ... like all frauds your end is approaching ... your Nobel Prize (what a grim farce) and other awards will not save you ... It is all there on the record, your sexual orgies ... you are done ... there is only one thing for you to do ... and you know what it is.”
This FBI missive proves that the forces within government were willing to stop at nothing to end, what they considered, an imminent threat to the status quo. In fact, by April 3, 1968, after returning to Memphis (one day prior to his assassination), King’s hostility toward the U.S. political economy and its endemic inequalities grew into an overt attack on corporate America, “We are asking you tonight ... to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis ... Tell them not to buy–what is the other bread? Wonder Bread.” This direct challenge to the pecuniary interests of American business only intensified the image of King as a menace.
Governmental forces so loathed King the man and what he stood for, that they pursued the diminution of his persona for years after his murder in Memphis, Tennessee, “While the FBI did intensely track King through his death, it actually continued to besmirch his name even after he was assassinated,” but what authoritarian forces working on behalf of capitalist interests could not completely eviscerate they inevitably subsumed. During his speech on the creation of a national holiday for King -- November 2, 1983, some fifteen-years after King’s brutal assassination, Ronald Reagan was one of the first conservatives to publically confiscate, misappropriate and alter King’s image to that of the “extraordinary” American, “In the fifties and sixties, one of the important crises we faced was racial discrimination. The man whose words and deeds in that crisis stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” In spite of the fact that Reagan, and most reactionaries in the U.S., long considered King a traitor, a communist subversive, and, an adversary to corporate and state power, Reagan used King’s words not only to support conservative ideals and policies, but also for his own political gain. Facing re-election in 1984 and waning poll numbers, “[Reagan and] his political advisers hoped for some positive effect among black and moderate white voters.” Reagan, in what can be considered a public-relations-coup, exalted King’s words through a histrionic burst of American exceptionalism, "All of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning ... land where my fathers died ... from every mountainside, let freedom ring," which, as preformed before the nation, deliberately sanitized, ignored and diminished the purpose of King’s mission which stood in direct opposition to the destructive forces of corporate greed.
Finally, what this conservative, and later neo-liberal, approach to King’s views conveniently overlooked, whether in political-thought or school textbooks, is King’s class oriented fight for justice. Throughout his brief life, King affirmed, in private and in public, his socialist beliefs – from his stance on race, war and poverty, to his evaluation of the global political economy. What the foundations of power have attempted to subvert, at all costs, was King’s clarion-call for the unification of the poor, “There is amazing power in unity. Where there is true unity, every effort to disunite only serves to strengthen the unity.” Again, Martin Luther King Jr. was a Socialist and radical humanist at his core, a resolute teacher of the social gospel, a committed supporter of cooperative principles and a firm champion of collectivist values. As a result of his commitment to those ethics, principles and values - he, not only fell victim to the pernicious and menacing powers of the capitalist state, but he also steadfastly and resolutely sacrificed his own life.
Stephen Joseph Scott is a singer/songwriter, humanist/activist, record producer and actor – a self-taught musician, writer and performer; now living in Philadelphia.
As a musician, He uses American Roots Music, a blend of influences including Country, Soul, Rock, Rhythm and Blues, Bluegrass and Folk to illustrate the current American social and political landscape.
In the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Steve explores the inward and outward fragility of the human condition within a decimated working class – to which far too many fall victim. Emanating from his own humble origins, Steve expresses what he calls the “wrenching torment” of common folk: abuse, neglect, regret, struggle, sacrifice and loss!
Link to latest video: "We Know They Lied" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4_oSycHBCM
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