I know that it is improper never to say “never.” However, I feel I must in order to set the record straight. Martin Luther King, Jr., was never an advocate of capitalism in his campaigns for civil and human rights. His perspective had been that of a democratic socialist since the latter part of his college days. He did not insist on spouting off about socialism for much of his public career because he was attacking the fundamental rights related to local and interstate travel, public accommodations, and voting for the first ten years. The remaining three years of his life, before it was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, were focused on economic exploitation, militarization, and the ongoing institutional discrimination.
Many scholars like to demythologize King by claiming that he evolved into a radical or revolutionary; he became a socialist only after his foray into the ghettos of Chicago; he acceded to some of the demands of the Black Power movement and the burgeoning Black Panthers crusade; he learned more about the evils of capitalism as he answered the call of Marian Wright (Edelman) and then-Senator Robert F. Kennedy to construct a Poor People’s Campaign; he sought to evangelize the nation about nonviolent resolution of conflict by lambasting the Johnson Administration’s escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and connecting it to the mistreatment of young black males; and his concern for Memphis sanitation workers forced him to address directly the worth of the labor movement and the exploitation of labor. In my opinion, these scholars are wrong, for they do not appreciate the fact that there is ample evidence of King’s strong affinity to socialism prior to 1955; King intermittently criticized American capitalism throughout his public career; and, perhaps most importantly, King was compelled first to deal with the superficial and peripheral elements of Jim Crow segregation before he could grapple with the systemic structural, procedural, and policymaking dimensions of racism.
King was not flawless in his pursuit of justice for the marginalized. After all, he was a member of a fallible species as all Homo sapiens are. The development of Operation Breadbasket in 1962 on the heels of the Albany movement in Atlanta, Georgia, was not acquiescence to the economic mainstream by encouraging blacks to become diehard capitalists. Rather, it was in recognition of the fact that employers were racist in their actions and African Americans were faced with unfair hiring practices, on the one hand, and deprived of job training, on the other hand. Breadbasket was begun in order to call attention to unemployment and underemployment among blacks through boycotts against companies not hiring blacks in appreciable, if any, numbers and arbitration with those and other businesses to agree to ways to address and redress the inequitable disparities. These actions were not salvos to modern industrial capitalism, but, rather, a realization of the urgent and emergent needs of people who could not support themselves or their families.
When we embark upon a discussion of King’s legacy, we must not settle on simply paying homage to the “I Have a Dream” speech, the Birmingham and Selma campaigns that largely contributed to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, respectively, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the paranormal premonition of his “Mountaintop” climax the night before his murder. We must, even in confabulating about his meaning for the twenty-first century, mirror his exhortation that “the whole Jericho Road must be changed.” Dr. King’s legacy is one that embraces the tenets of moral law: try to reach your ideal of society through knowing your values, pursuing the best possible, making your strategies and tactics relevant and specific to the situation or the issue, being aware of the consequences of your actions, working in collaboration with others, and seeking to effectuate positive social change that respects the dignity and worth of human personality—whatever one’s metaphysical or theological persuasion might be.
Any real legatee of King’s must be acutely cognizant of the latter’s core orientation towards democratic socialism. The solution to economic exploitation—apart from discriminatory employment practices—is not only a redistribution of the wealth of this country, but also ensuring that every individual has a livable income, can participate fully in the body politic, and can have all the basic and existential human needs satisfied.