The Socialism of Martin Luther King Jr.

“If we are to achieve a real equality, the U.S. will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.”

A short African American minister with a black mustache penned these words in a Selma, Alabama jail cell in 1965 (see David Garrow, Bearing the Cross). He had just been arrested during a voting rights demonstration.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not just a brilliant orator and champion of black rights.

Though it has largely been erased from American memory, Dr. King was anti-war, anti-capitalism, and pro-socialism. He saw capitalism as exploitative by nature, an economic structure that bred poverty and injustice.

This should come as no surprise, as Dr. King studied Karl Marx’s works, wrote of Marxism in essays like “How Should a Christian View Communism?” and “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” and worked closely with radicals like his mentor, socialist A. Phillip Randolph, and his close advisor, communist Jack O’Dell.

He spoke of his desire to fundamentally change society several times, not into an authoritarian socialism or communism, in which the State owns and directs and profits from all business, but a democratic socialism, in which the workers collectively own and direct and profit from the businesses in which they work.

He saw capitalism as a method of organization that produced an extremely wealthy upper class, but left huge numbers in dire poverty. Coretta Scott King wrote that her husband believed “a kind of socialism has to be adopted” because “he looked at the poor…so many people were in ill health with no way for them to pay their medical expenses” (See The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism, John Nichols).

King condemned the minority poverty bred by centuries of white oppression. He said in 1966 to his staff:

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. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.

Socialist ownership would replace a system in which the few (the business owners, “captains of industry”) grow rich off the labor of the many (the workers). See this article to study democratic socialism further.

At the 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in Atlanta, in his “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech, King spoke of how the ownership of business by the few led to wealth for the few:

The movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, Why are there forty million poor people in America?

And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.

And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, Who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question, Who owns the iron ore?…

Similarly, Harry Belafonte writes in his memoir My Song that King said he wasn’t a capitalist, explaining:

The trouble is that we live in a failed system. Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level… That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we’re going to have to change the system.

He also spoke, in his “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech, of the need to use the massive tax wealth of the United States to end poverty, calling for a guaranteed income and hinting at dissatisfaction with the rich and powerful that determined domestic and foreign policy:

[A] guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year… If our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth…

In Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote, “[T]he solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed matter: the guaranteed income… We must create full employment, or we must create incomes.”

King believed the government served the interests of the rich, saying: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”

Likewise, capitalist ownership of private firms largely served the interests of the few who controlled the means of production, rather than the many who were paid dismal wages to operate the means of production, garnering profits that were used as desired by those in control.

He wrote to Coretta Scott on July 18, 1952, about a year before they married:

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, viz., to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against.

So today capitalism has out-lived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.

He repeated the same phrasing in his late 1950s speech “A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations,” in which he described a    

…new world in which men will be able to live together as brothers. This new world in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. This new world, in which men will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks. Yes, this new world in which men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. (See King, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

He believed that the natural outcomes of capitalism, such as private property, fierce competition, the profit motive, consumerism, individualism, and materialism, shifted focus away from the needs of fellow human beings, encouraging complacency in the face of virulent racism or the deaths of millions during U.S. bombings and invasions. He said in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” speech:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

He wrote in 1967:

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… 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.

Socialism, a philosophy and worldview claimed by many people before him and many after, was to Dr. King the way to create a better world. New, more democratic forms of ownership and political decision-making could do far better at abolishing poverty, racism, and war than a capitalistic society ruled by the rich few.

In “Beyond Vietnam,” Dr. King declared:           

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe, men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.

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