Was Martin Luther King a Socialist?

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By Lynn Parramore, Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

The Millennial socialists are coming,” declared a June 30 New York Times headline, describing a surprise surge of young female candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America who beat their establishment opponents in primary races in New York and Pennsylvania. No longer is being a socialist considered scary — at least if you came of age after the Fall of the Wall. For many, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Martin Luther King, Jr., if he were around today, would likely be smiling.

The image of the handsome, be-suited King, looking like a middle-class messenger of the American Dream as he mesmerized the masses on the steps of the Lincoln memorial with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, has been embraced by everyone from Coca-Cola executives to Donald Trump. It’s part of America’s cultural memory, our political DNA.

Some may know that there was more to his legacy than the epic fight to end racism, recalling that in the period leading up to his assassination in 1968, King focused on building a multi-racial movement for economic justice with his labor activism and Poor People’s Campaign.

But even that view, argues Michael Honeyin his new book, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, does not capture the whole story.

Consider King’s words in a letter to Coretta Scott in 1952: “I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic,” he wrote, adding that capitalism had “out-lived its usefulness” because it had “brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”

King was 23 years old when he wrote that.

The same year, his future spouse sent him a copy of Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialist novel of 1888, Looking Backward. King wrote to her with revolutionary fervor: “Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color…This is the gospel that I will preach to the world.”

King’s suspicion of American capitalism and his passion for economic justice did not represent a turn in his last tumultuous years, argues Honey, Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma. They were there all along.

Beyond the suit-and-tie King appealing for racial equality was a man in blue jeans marching alongside laborers, sitting in jail cells, and rousing workers on picket lines. This was a man keenly aware, observes Honey, that he was descended from “African American and Irish dirt-poor people who lived the American nightmare.” He had seen the horror of Depression-era breadlines that contributed to what King described as his “anti-capitalistic feelings.” Honey notes that as a teenager in the 1940s, King worked at a southern factory but quit after the foreman called him a “nigger.” When he worked on a tobacco farm up North, he saw first-hand that abusers of the poor were racially indiscriminate in their exploitation.

As a college student, King wrote a paper declaring that racial injustice and economic injustice were inseparable twins.

So if King was an economic radical from the beginning, why don’t we know more about it?

Honey, who was an organizer in Memphis in the years following King’s death, describes how his own view shifted in 1994 when he found a file of King’s labor speeches in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change library in Atlanta. These speeches gave him insight into how King and his colleagues built alliances with workers and organized labor and made him want to learn more about that history, which his new book brings to life.

He says that the reason MLK’s legacy has been misunderstood has to do with political and cultural forces in King’s time and in our own.

Honey points out that civil rights leaders who rose to prominence before King, like W.E.B. Du Bois and Ella Baker, explicitly linked racism to economic injustice, but that line of thinking became taboo during the Red Scare. King, explains Honey, was a pragmatist who saw that it would not be possible to make progress on poverty until black people were able to vote and wield political power. So he devoted his efforts to securing civil rights as the first step in a movement to turn America into a place where poor people of all colors would one day be empowered.

On February 18, 1957, Time magazine put a picture of King on its cover, describing him as “expert organizer” but “no radical.” Honey says that Timewas actually wrong on both counts: his strength lay more in visionary and oratory power than organizing prowess, and he was certainly radical in his thinking. Nevertheless, a journalistic version of King emerged that painted him as a civil rights leader who became increasingly radical after the Vietnam War, a long-accepted picture that scholars have begun to challenge in recent years. (See: Vincent Harding’s Martin Luther King: TheInconvenient Heroand Misremembering Dr. King, by Jennifer J. Yanco).

Honey notes that Coretta Scott King kept her husband’s letters and early sermons, in which he expressed support for ideas like the “nationalization of industry,” in a box in her basement for over thirty years after he died, a move that may have been inspired by anxiety that his radical views of capitalism would be used by the American right wing to tarnish his legacy. Which is very likely true.

So was King an actual socialist? When I ask this question, Honey points me to the 1952 letters to Coretta. “Well, it’s pretty clear there, isn’t it? He’s probably a “small ‘d,’ small ‘s’ democratic socialist, but he’s also a pragmatist who wanted to change things for poor people and bring them things like free college education and free health care.”

These are, of course, the very same ideas that many Americans cheered when they came from the lips of Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders in his surprisingly successful 2016 run for president.

Honey emphasizes that King was first and foremost a Christian, and that he operated from a framework heavily influenced by the Social Gospel tradition, which began as a critique of American capitalism in the late 19th century when many religious people grew disgusted by the industrial conditions of poor and working class people. Honey writes that King’s father, also a minister, “saw his main mission as serving the poor…and passed that on to his congregation and his family.”

It might have once been true that King’s economic radicalism could tarnish his legacy, but in an era of rampant and rising inequality, that same aspect of his thinking might now serve to burnish it. Many contemporary Americans, Honey points out, are interested in a broad restructuring of society and eager to take on economic impoverishment along with mass incarceration, police brutality, and “the most pernicious aspects of both Jim Crow capitalism in the South and racial capitalism in the North.”

As the recent election results suggest, King the economic radical has renewed relevance, and Honey’s work helps to shift him from static icon to dynamic thinker whose vision can guide us in taking on the grossly unfair aspects of American capitalism.

Honey’s work suggests the true dimensions of King’s legacy and what realizing it would mean. If we are not serious about the redistribution of wealth and power, we are not fully honoring MLK.

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  1. Tom Stone

    One part of that legacy is that the Black misleadership class has done nothing to unite poor people of all races to fight their common enemy.
    Doing so would be suicidal.
    When King started talking about the Memphis garbageman’s strike and how TPTB used “Divide and Conquer” as a strategy he was assassinated.
    I strongly recommend anyone interested in American political history take a look at the Civil suit the King family brought in regard to the Assassination of Dr King…
    They did not get a lot of Mainstream attention, not a surprise.

    1. WheresOurTeddy

      “The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” And we … kill those people. – Bill Hicks

    2. zagonostra

      See below for an account of the government’s role in the assassination of MLK. It still hasn’t seeped into the public consciousness. Most people still think the lone assassin was James Earl Ray. People who write about MLK and don’t know the name Willam Pepper, haven’t fully done their research.

      “The truth about the assassination was fully revealed in court, under oath over a month long trial in late 1999 in Memphis. In Kings v. Jowers, etal, some 70 witnesses completely set out the details and the range of the conspiracy which was coordinated by the US Government with the assistance of state and local officials and on the site implementation of local organized crime operatives.”


  2. albert

    “airbrush out”

    How delightfully old fashioned:)

    Made my day!

    Having such a popular leader, a Socialist and an anti-war champion was too much for the Elites.

    . .. . .. — ….

  3. KLG

    Michael Harrington wrote about his conversations with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the eclipse of the latter’s reputation after his speech on the ongoing war in SE Asia. The March on Washington was for Jobs and Freedom. MLK Jr. was certainly a democratic socialist in the Harrington mold. A good thing that has required 50 years to begin to take root. Time to cultivate!

  4. marym

    With the endless focus on the left-behind white working class and the grievances supposedly justifying their family-blog-you to the establishment in electing Trump, I’ve been thinking a lot about the responses of black people successively “left behind” by slavery, the failures of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, red-lining, urban “renewal”, hostile policing, the war on drugs, and the inequities of the legal system.

    After emancipation black people self-organized to care for orphans, the sick and the elderly; with the help of abolitionist and missionary organizations established schools and colleges; participated in political groups; and advocated for justice and freedom in universal religious and secular terms.

    Here’s just one of many examples from Eric Foner’s Reconstruction:

    “Throughout the South, blacks in 1865 and 1866 formed societies and raised money among themselves to purchase land, build schoolhouses, and pay teachers’ salaries. Some communities voluntarily taxed themselves, while in others black schools charged tuition, although often a certain number of the poorest families were allowed to enroll their children free of charge….”

    While there have been black separatists and people who resorted to violence or gave up, political responses to oppression have usually focused on community self-help; education; an analysis of fundamental systemic flaws, and demands for universal rights – in our own times, from MLK, to Fred Hampton to Reverend Barber there have been black leaders with the insight and ability to lead a class-conscious integrated movement.

    1. Norb

      One of the most kindly women I have ever met was the mother of a fellow nursing student my girlfriend (now wife) was classmates with. The daughter was getting married and we were invited to share in the ceremonies. Being white from the suburbs of a large metropolitan area, my exposure to black community life was very limited. What I took away from the experience was a deep respect for the fortitude, and humility demonstrated throughout the entire day.

      The mother radiated a kind of peaceful strength that is difficult to describe. The family lived simply, had strong emotional ties to one another, and without knowing any details, you could sense that they were trying their best to live lives of purpose and dignity in the face of hardship- and succeeding. I can’t imagine the struggles and hardships overcome by the family to get to that point in their lives, but there we were. I was struck by this family making a good life for themselves in the mist of much desperation and chaos- all the while exuding a care and concern for others. It was truly awe inspiring.

      My wife and I were younger then and starting our own lives. Time moves on, and with children, job changes, and the multitude of family crisis and concerns, acquaintances drift apart and friendships flow in and out of connectedness. We were also from different worlds, or paths crossing for a brief moment. We have lost contact with this family and all that remains right now is memory.

      But what I remember of that day was the power of the emotional glue that held that family together and motivated their lives. It was a religious faith that was directed not only toward informing their own survival and personal strength, but as a force that was effortlessly passed on to others.

      Thinking about it now, this is the legacy of MLK that persists to this day. A religious faith that informs and provides a personal strength in order for families to survive and form communities. It is the undercurrent that supports so much which is taken for granted.

      1. marym

        Thank you for sharing the story and your thoughts about the place of religion and family.

        Reading about the early days of Reconstruction would probably always have been difficult, knowing as we do how many more times in our history the same struggle for family, work, and rights would be fought. At this particular moment, with movements like Rev.Barber’s call for a Poor People’s Campaign II, BLM, and prison and police reform activism, countering our era’s version of the authoritarian powers of the state and the now very overt forms of racism, it’s really appalling.

  5. Left in Wisconsin

    The right would like to portray socialism as some fringe idea that was never part of the USAmerican political scene. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the 1930s-40s, socialism was seen by many as a moderate position, between communism and capitalism. Throughout much of our history, the notion that, for example, utilities should be privately owned and operated for profit was much more of a fringe idea than that they should be publicly-owned and not operated for profit. It was only after WW2 that the right succeeded in pushing socialism out of the mainstream of political thought. Even so, it wasn’t like socialism disappeared over night. Frank Zeidler was mayor of Milwaukee until 1960!!

    1. Lord Koos

      My father told me that when he was in college in the late 30s, it was very common for students to be members of the communist party.

  6. dcblogger

    What a coincidence you running this piece as this past week I have been listening to LeVar Burton’s recording of MLK’s autobiography, I was struck by the combination of what would pass for radicalism and the down to earth practical approach he took to organizing. At one point he even had to write an explanation as to why the bus boycott was different from boycotts organized by White Citizen’s Councils. I think that has to set some sort of world record for both sidesism.

  7. Newton Finn

    For some time now, I’ve been immersing myself in Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” and “Equality.” I’m overjoyed to see him mentioned here in connection with the great MLK. No one since Bellamy has more incisively dissected capitalism or put forward a more detailed and compelling alternative. Although written over 120 years ago, Bellamy’s twin masterpieces dovetail nicely with another must-read published just last year: “Reclaiming the State” by Mitchell and Fazi.

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