Martin Luther King Jr.’s Journey Towards Socialism

During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.—V.I. Lenin in The State and Revolution

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. As Lenin explained in 1917, bourgeois society prefers an iconized saint devoid of troublesome controversies when it comes to figures like MLK. From media portrayals to elementary school book reports, the portrait given fixates on a one-sided, triumphalistic narrative. The usual story centers on the Montgomery bus boycott and the march from Selma, and the sum of his thinking is collapsed into a one-liner: “I have a dream.” Juxtaposed with a gross caricature of the “menacing and untamed” Malcolm X, King is presented as the dispenser of disinfected platitudes, a harmless Boy Scout devoid of anything subversive. It is on the basis of this fiction that MLK’s memory was minted into a national holiday, transforming him into mythologized—and harmless—figure. When a more “balanced” picture is offered, it usually focuses on the utterly irrelevant topic of King’s “personal indiscretions.”

From harmless icon to iconoclast and back again

Just a decade and a half before the first MLK day, the same establishment that paid posthumous homage was his prime aggravator, doing its utmost to push him over the edge. King took his campaign beyond the push for mere cosmetic, legislative changes. He challenged the material basis of racism and publicly opposed the Vietnam War. For this, he was not only at odds with his inner circle and out of favor with President Lyndon Johnson’s administration—he had to be eliminated by any means necessary.

As his date with destiny in Memphis approached, the political establishment moved might and main to discredit and silence King, who was seemingly a shadow of his former glory. Not only did his public prominence wane, but he was made into an object of ridicule by many of his contemporaries in the movement. The same King who proclaimed the famous “Dream” on August 28, 1963, spent his final years fatigued and chronically depressed, weighed down with the full awareness that his days on earth were numbered.

King’s worldview was profoundly affected by the tumultuous upheavals around the world in the 1960s. A class understanding of the world gradually crystallized and he shone a spotlight beyond Southern segregation and onto capitalism itself. More than legislative prescriptions, King addressed the material infrastructure of capitalism as the basis for the perpetuation of the racial divide in American society. Though he was intuitively critical of capitalism even early on, 1966 marked a turning point. In a speech to his staff members in that year, King categorically stated:

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.

The crisis of capitalism

The civil rights movement can only be understood in the context of the broader class struggle that shook the globe despite the relative stability of the postwar world. Those who argued for the perpetual stability of capitalism and proclaimed the end of class struggle were forced to contend with continued challenges to the system’s dominance. The 1960s exposed the inability of US imperialism to quell the Vietnamese Revolution, while major urban centers like Oakland, London, and Paris saw a new generation of young people rising up against the system.

The civil rights movement is usually portrayed as a mere struggle for constitutional inclusivity. However, alongside the right to vote and full recognition as citizens, were demands for full employment, decent housing, and a more equitable economic distribution. The 1963 March on Washington, during which King gave his “dream” speech, included an array of economic demands, including jobs for all and a higher minimum wage.

Even before King rose to prominence, many black Americans had fought in the labor movement and organized across racial lines to improve the conditions of black workers, challenging Jim Crow in the South and its uncodified equivalent in the North. Veterans returning from World War II demanded genuine democracy at home, not only overseas. These movements were the backdrop to the Montgomery bus boycott and the struggle for school integration. Leaders such as A. Philip Randolph, the great organizer for the Pullman porter strike, came directly from the trade unions and served as a powerful inspiration for the civil rights movement. Sharing a direct continuity with such struggles, many leaders, including King, were naturally shaped by these experiences. In this light, it is not surprising that King equated the civil rights struggle with labor struggles, and eventually took a stand against the war in Vietnam.

The Dream and the Three Evils

It is understandable why the images and videos of King speaking with passion and eloquence before a crowd of 250,000 in front of the Lincoln Memorial have become so iconic. As he proclaimed the civil rights struggle as continuity with “the architects of our republic” who “wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” it was assumed he had an unquestioning faith in the institutional structures of US bourgeois democracy. His words emanated optimism as he declared to the marchers, “We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check . . . a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir . . . that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Yet four years later, on August 31, 1967, when the memory of the March on Washington had waned in the public’s eye, King gave a speech titled, “The Three Evils of Society,” in which he reflected with a somber tone, “I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about, the not-too-distant day when they would have freedom, all here, now. I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing me because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted, turn into a frustrating nightmare.”

Beginnings and transitions in Chicago

A look at King’s development highlights the changing texture of his opposition between 1965 and 1966. In 1965, King was at the height of his career, with his symbolic march from Selma to Montgomery. He and his followers were given a sympathetic hearing in the press, and he had the backing of President Lyndon Johnson, who ordered federal troops to protect the marchers. Once in Montgomery, they were greeted by 50,000 supporters who eagerly listened to him boldly proclaim, “No tide of racism can stop us!” as viewers from around the world witnessed the historic event on television.

But just one year later, King would find a different animal when confronting the racism of the North. As he gathered with fellow activists in Chicago to address housing inequalities in Northern ghettos, his goal was to “bring about the unconditional surrender of forces dedicated to the creation and maintenance of slums.” On July 10, 1966, King and the Chicago Freedom Movement contended against Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Democratic Party machine. As tens of thousands of marchers advanced peacefully into the white neighborhoods of Chicago, they were greeted by a barrage of bricks and bottles. Even with the protection of the National Guard, King was compelled to call off further marches. Later, he would express his surprise at the greater hostility in the North than the South: “Those of us who came to Chicago from Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama . . . we found ourselves confronted by the hard realities of a social system in many ways more resistant to change than the rural South.” Reflecting on the events, King would declare 1966 as a year “of beginnings and of transition.”

The War in Vietnam

Alongside the experience of Chicago, King’s resistance to the Vietnam War stirred up the wrath of the political establishment. Early in 1965, King’s opposition to the war was mainly due to his pacifist and Christian convictions. As he began to contend with the question of US imperialism, his arguments were largely moralistic, informed by the “Just War Theory,” which argued that some wars were a “lesser good” or a necessary “lesser evil.” This framework was reflected in his initial demands against the war. Since he believed that the conflict was merely an administrative miscalculation, King urged the government to negotiate with the “enemy” and to broker a peace agreement.

But in his attempt to appeal to the humanity of the capitalists, King was brought face to face with the limitations of his approach. President Johnson, angered by King’s statements, set him up for public embarrassment. After a mock meeting with the UN Ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, King took the bait by publicly expressing his optimism for a short-term resolution of the Vietnam question. However, this was used by Senator Thomas Dodd to mock King’s credibility publicly. From this point on, the press actively questioned his character and competence, going as far as accusing him of being a desperate opportunist trying to regain clout in the political arena.

Opposition came not only from the political establishment but even fellow civil rights activists. Worried that his controversial stance on the Vietnam War would alienate the establishment, to whom they looked for succor, many of his closest associates distanced themselves from him. All of this pushed King to draw even more radical conclusions about the Vietnam War. He correlated the imperialist venture with the contradictions suffered in the ghetto. In his eyes, the money extravagantly spent for a conflict thousands of miles away, was at the expense of social programs that were desperately needed at home. As Congress cut significant portions of LBJ’s “war on poverty,” MLK Jr. connected the dots and concluded that with such costly ventures, the social transformation he was fighting for simply couldn’t happen. In his famous sermon, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” he made his views crystal clear:

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, like some demonic, destructive suction tube. And you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.

As King came to terms with the contradictions of imperialism, he actively sought to expose the hypocrisy of a US foreign policy that wreaked havoc on the poor. He also came to understand that the interests of the average citizen were in diametrical opposition to the machinations of US foreign policy. He bemoaned 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 school room.” As King saw the nation’s poor pitted against each other and used to inflict violence against the poor of the world, he concluded “that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power . . . the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together.”

The material basis of racism

Though segregation in the South was the rule of law, the North saw similar problems and divisions in the ghettos and slums. Despite the absence of explicitly racist legislation, Northern racism was very much a reality. As he struggled with economic inequality, he also understood that his campaigns had to go beyond modifying legislation for surface-level, cosmetic changes. In opposition to many of his peers, who reasoned that a bigger share of American wealth for black Americans would remedy the inequality gap, King understood the duplicity of such reasoning. In a speech addressed to the SCLC in 1967, King railed openly against the capitalist system:

A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying is that we must go from this convention and say “America, you must be born again!”

King challenged his listeners to ask, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” The implications of such an inquiry naturally led to some damning realities about the broader distribution of wealth and the economic system itself. King added, “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.”

Speculations

Tragically, King’s life was violently ended just as he embarked on “The Poor People’s Campaign,” which aimed at tackling poverty and economic inequality by attempting to unite the poor of all races to pressure Washington for an “economic bill of rights.” He was in Memphis that fateful April day to support the striking Memphis sanitation workers. The question of what direction this campaign would have taken if King had not been struck down is purely speculative. But the nature of the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign leads inexorably to the question of class and the need for socialism. Even if an “economic bill of rights” were codified, and Congress enacted programs to deal with wealth inequality and poverty, would that lead to a genuinely equal society? By King’s own admission, capitalism is interlinked organically with racism and imperialism. As long as classes exist, so too will exploitation and oppression at home and abroad. To overcome this requires working-class unity spanning all races and organized under the banner of a revolutionary party with its sights set on making the bourgeoisie a memory of the past.

One might express skepticism at the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. working towards building a mass revolutionary party. Many typecast him as a perpetual reformist, limiting himself to what is possible within capitalism. But when one considers the nature of capitalism and its radicalizing effects on consciousness, it is not so far-fetched. MLK had already come quite far on the path from reformism towards revolution, and in the tumultuous late 1960s, there is no telling where he may have ended up. What we can assert is that he was continually adapting his views and tactics, and was moving dangerously close to conclusions that posed a threat to the ruling class. As a mass leader with enormous charisma and worldwide renown, he was a clear and present danger that had to be eliminated “with extreme prejudice.” In light of the actions of COINTELPRO against groups like the Black Panthers, this is no mere conspiracy theory.

It is beyond the scope of this brief article to exhaust all of the complexities and nuances of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. But we must make clear that during his lifetime, he was not the darling of the establishment he is made out to be today. He refused to toe the line of the powers that be and was made to pay for it. Behind the insipid platitudes and the pomp and circumstance of holiday celebrations, King’s life vividly exemplifies a courageous stance against the capitalist system. We must not allow the civil rights movement to be cynically co-opted and celebrated as the pride and joy of the American elite. Rather, we must claim it for what it is: as an inspiring and decisive chapter in the history of working-class struggle in this country. On the half-century anniversary of King’s death, the best way to honor his courage and sacrifice is to redouble our efforts to fight the very system that took his life.

As Marxists, we emphatically declare that this can only be achieved by raising class consciousness and unity through united class struggle against capitalism. A politically independent working class, free from the influences of the Democratic and Republican Parties, represented by a mass socialist party with a revolutionary program, will take concrete measures to eliminate racism, linking this struggle to the struggle of the working class as a whole for socialism.

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