It’s time for the left to connect with the real Martin Luther King.
Dr. King has been softened, sanitized, and Hallmark-ized. As Cornel West once summed it up—there’s been a ‘Santa-Claus-ification‘ of Dr. King!
Like many American historical figures, King’s life has been robbed of nuance and depth. He was one of the 20th century’s greatest moral leaders, but he also struggled with conflict—both external and internal. Despite everything King kept his integrity—his driving force was an aspect of his life that has been subject to much misunderstanding: his politics.
A Man of No Party, A Man of Revolution
Both sides of the political divide have claimed Martin Luther King at various times. There was even a billboard that claimed he was a Republican.
But following the 1964 Republican National Convention, King said:
The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism. All people of goodwill viewed with alarm and concern the frenzied wedding at the Cow Palace of the KKK with the radical right…
…I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.
It was clear King was not a Republican—but though he campaigned for Lyndon B. Johnson in ’64, he also did not self-identify as a Democrat. Yet nearly every contemporary Democratic Party politician now claims his legacy.
In the final years of his life, King broke with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and the failure of enforcing civil rights legislation in the south—thus severing his only link to the Democratic Party.
The Democrats considered him a traitor following his 1967 call for the US to pull out of Vietnam. At the same time, King did not find an alliance with the growing black nationalist movement. He did not want to associate with any group seen as militant. Gandhi being one of his formative influences, King always pursued the path of peaceful revolutionary.
But that doesn’t mean his approach wasn’t radical in the context of American politics. In 1967, King told his organization—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference:
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.
It wasn’t the first time he used such language, on multiple occasions King criticized capitalism and told others that America needed democratic socialism to guarantee income for all.
MLK—Critic of Capitalism
There are some on the right who claim Martin Luther King was a communist. King wasn’t a communist—but neither was he the non-ideological figure found in neoliberal revisionism.
In his words in 1967: “…the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis.” He didn’t mince words when later in the same year he said: “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”
There’s also the misconception that King only held leftist beliefs later in life. But in a 1952 letter to his future wife, Coretta Scott, he reveals his skepticism towards modern capitalism:
I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human systems it falls victim to the very thing it was revolting against. 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.
The civil rights leader put much more emphasis on class than any modern liberal. When speaking to a New York Times reporter in 1968, he said, “In a sense, you could say we’re involved in the class struggle.”
There’s currently the ‘identity politics versus economic inequality’ argument within Democratic politics. In King’s view, addressing economic inequality was essential to civil rights. As he said in a speech in 1966:
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.
He hinted at this core ideology in a speech to his staff in 1966, “We are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
Even early on, in a speech to the Negro American Labor Council in 1961, he used the term:
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.
Reclaiming the Real MLK
In January of 2015, young activists involved with Black Lives Matter spearheaded the #ReclaimMLK campaign, which sought to engage with what King actually stood for—civil disobedience and speaking truth to power.
Now the broader left needs to do the same. The beliefs of King are more relevant than ever, as those in power threaten civil rights, and economic inequality is higher than ever before.
It’s often under-appreciated that late in his career King initiated the “Poor People’s Campaign.” He wanted a crusade against poverty—not just among blacks, but for all Americans. During this time he spoke of the need for a guaranteed basic income, a concept that is especially relevant now—in a time with decreasing wages, outsourced jobs, and automation.MLK didn't choose between civil rights & economic justice—to him both were intertwined.Click To Tweet
This is why presenting King as he was is essential—he was a true visionary. His robust leftism fully embraced both civil rights and class struggle. He supported both strikes and marches, better incomes and opportunities. He wasn’t afraid to talk of redistribution of wealth, or use words like ‘socialism.’
In listening to his speeches and reading his writings, leftists will continue to find true inspiration in the life and work of Martin Luther King.