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Monday, February 1, 2016

The Socialist Martin Luther King


Last month’s Martin Luther King holiday is significant for all Americans, but the Rev. King’s elevation to the status of a national icon (with the accompanying grumbling by a few hard-core racists) risks losing the man’s central message. His celebration in elementary schools, churches, and civic plazas always omits any mention of the antipathy he provoked in the ruling class of his own era or the controversies about his ideas and methods in the Movement itself. Least likely to receive any attention is his lifelong socialist ideology.

I had myself believed that King came to socialism only as the sixties wore on and a left alternative became more widely discussed in these United States. I recall being cheered by the critiques of capitalism that I heard with increasing frequency in his speeches. Yet a bit of study revealed to me that his politics were decades-old, though he kept prudentially mum about his radicalism until opposition to an imperialist war and the rise of a strengthened American left emboldened him to publically state the convictions he had long held. J. Edgar Hoover’s grumpy rumblings referring to King as “the most dangerous Negro” and “the most notorious liar in the country,” and his attempt to blackmail King while suggesting suicide as an escape, while bizarre and extreme, are also part of the repressive anticommunist hysteria of the era.

The socialist movement had had long ties to the struggle against racism. Early revolutionary unionists such as the I.W.W. welcomed immigrants and non-whites as fellow-workers. Many of the founders of the N. A. A. C. P. such as suffragist Mary Ovington White, journalists William English Walling and Charles Edward Russell, and W. E. B. Dubois were explicit radicals. In the early twentieth century such prominent black ministers as the Rev. George Washington Woodbey, the Rev. Richard Euell, and the Rev. George Slater Jr. were socialist activists as well as Christian ministers. During King’s youth the left, including the Communist Party, other anti-capitalist formations, and progressive elements of the labor movement, stood virtually alone in white America in their opposition to racism.

In his university training, King was heir to the particularly pointed social justice teaching of the African-American church [1] as well as being influenced by leftist thinkers such as Walter Rauschenbusch, the religious thinker most often cited by King throughout his career. Rauschenbusch explicitly supported what he in 1907 called communism. [2] In 1950 as a young divinity student King himself described his views as “anti-capitalistic.” [3]

King wrote in a letter to his fiancée Coretta Scott before their marriage “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic… [Capitalism] started out with a noble and high motive… but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has out-lived its usefulness.” [4]
Many if King’s allies, especially in the earlier days of the modern Movement were committed socialists, among them planners of the August 1963 March on Washington such as Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph.

Due to the unique conditions of American anti-communism for many years King was careful to obscure his economic views. Even as late as 1968, while speaking to members of Operation Breadbasket he said of his socialist ideology “I can’t say this publicly and if you say I said it I’m not gonna admit it.” [5] Several years earlier he had warned his staff about the hazards of challenging the fat cats, “You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism.” [6]

Though he had always known that oppression was at its base a class issue, though it often manifested in association with race, religion, or national origin, he tread very carefully. Aware that he was challenging the very pillar of the American ruling class, he noted “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism.” [7]

Yet he continued to stress the interconnectedness of class and race in America. “We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.” “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.” [8]

Thus, King realized that, while reforms might bring amelioration of injustice, the definitive way to combat racism, war, and exploitation was through radical change – the end of capitalism. Reluctant, unable to quite speak the truth without two opening qualifiers, he admitted to a reporter, “In a sense, you could say we’re involved in the class struggle.” [9] He realized that “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism. [10] For this reason he called himself a socialist and even a Marxist [6], declaring that “something is wrong with capitalism” and that “America must move toward democratic socialism.” [11] Thus he died supporting a labor struggle in the midst of planning the Poor People’s Campaign, a fight based in economics rather than race.

King’s socialism is part of the hidden history of America, the story of how nineteenth century communards sought to formulate a new society, radical abolitionists fought slavery, left-wing trade unionists brought better conditions to all, and progressive students helped end the war in Vietnam. Every step forward socially has come from the left. King was one of those people who concluded that social justice and an end to racism and other forms of bigotry, peace and a more reasonable deployment of the planet’s resources, responsibilities, and rewards can only come through the end of production for private profit. The commonwealth of the future he envisioned remains the goal of many around the world, and the struggle that continues today is the truest tribute, the living legacy of Martin Luther King.



1. Even before his university years, his family numbered among their friends the Baptist minister and activist J. Pius Barbour who cited Marx with approval.

2. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, p. 398. Among numerous other influences from this era, his undergraduate advisor was sociologist Walter Chivers who believed capitalism gave birth to racism.

3. Douglas Sturm, “Martin Luther King, Jr., as Democratic Socialist,” The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall, 1990), p. 80. This article is perhaps the best general survey of King’s socialism. Apart from this reference, it has provided me with many useful sources. See also Cornel West’s annotated anthology The Radical King.

4. Letter to Coretta Scott, July 18, 1952.

5. See Sturm who notes that King was afraid that his radicalism could alienate liberals and perhaps confuse his followers.” Sturm also relates C. L. R. James’ recollection that during their 1964 meeting King agreed entirely with his Marxist analysis, but was unable to make his ideas known because of “anti-communist hysteria” in the United States.

6. Speech to staff, November 14, 1966.

7. See Michael Harrington, Fragments of a Century: A Social Biography, p. 114-5 and David Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King: From “Solo” to Memphis, p. 213-214.

8. Speech to SCLC Board, March 30, 1967.

9. New York Times, October 16, 1968, story by José Iglesias.

10. Speech to SCLC Board, March 30, 1967.

11. DaGarrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council, p. 537.

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