MLK Was an Exemplar of a Black Socialist Tradition

Martin Luther King Jr had a rich relationship with socialist politics: he sympathized with but ultimately rejected Marxism, and he settled on a Christian socialism that viewed the struggle against racism and class oppression as fundamentally intertwined.

Martin Luther King Jr with civil rights leaders Floyd McKissick and Stokely Carmichael during a march through Mississippi to encourage voter registration. (Vernon Merritt III / Getty Images)

That Martin Luther King Jr “refused to repudiate Marxism wholesale” is now well established, with historians pointing out his deep-rooted concern for economic structural inequality. King did not shy away from speaking his mind within his closest circle. While quarreling with civil rights leader Andrew Young’s centrism, he alleged: “You’re a capitalist and I am not.” According to King biographer David Garrow, while talking to his friends in the 1960s, the preacher admitted that “economically speaking he considered himself what he termed a Marxist, largely because he believed with increasing strength that American society needed a radical redistribution of wealth and economic power to achieve even a rough form of social justice.”

He had entertained such ideas for a long time, formulating very early on the substance of his critique against capitalism and wealth inequalities. Rev. J. Pius Barbour, mentor and friend to the Kings, reminisced that when Martin was a young seminarian, he hinted at his socialistic leanings, saying that “Marx had analyzed the economic side of capitalism right” as “the capitalistic system was predicated on exploitation and prejudice, poverty.” In a letter he wrote to his future wife, Coretta, in 1952, King confided that he gravitated more toward socialism than toward capitalism.

That King eschewed using the word “socialist” publicly until his final days was arguably less an expression of his genuine reluctance than a prophylactic measure to avoid the stigma and the governmental harassment suffered by dozens of black radical activists. In a telling fashion, black radical writers and activists summoned to testify before “loyalty boards” were asked, “Do you think an outspoken philosophy of race favoring equality is an index of communism?”

Black voices who remained strident were tormented. W. E. B. Du Bois was the most notorious example. He ended his life in Ghana, unauthorized to come back to his home country. On the one hundredth anniversary of Du Bois’s birth, in February 1968, King would express dismay during a Carnegie Hall tribute to Du Bois:

We cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years. It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly welcomed the support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely. . . . It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.

MLK and Marxism

Martin Luther King was convinced that a meaningful citizenship entailed equal access to those social, cultural, and educational goods that enable people to develop their human potential and that therefore they should be guaranteed access, as a basic social right, to education, health care, housing, income security, job training, and more.

But, as a Christian, he could not refrain from having major qualifications about Marxist tenets. He dismissed the materialism of Marxism, and whereas Du Bois was an admirer of the Bolshevik revolution and grew to praise the USSR, King condemned it. Nevertheless, drawing on the legacy of black radicals, he meshed his faith with a radical vision of equality that complicated and reframed the prevailing religious-based anti-communist discourse.

He certainly stood out in the black middle-class environment he grew up in. King Sr recalled tense conversations with his son, pertaining to the young man’s critique of the free market and the soundness of the capitalist system. “Daddy King” took issue with such dissent, bemoaning that, politically, his son “seemed to be drifting away from the bases of capitalism and Western democracy that I felt very strongly about. . . . There were some sharp exchanges; I may even have raised my voice a few times.”

Very early on, King Jr began to speculate that America’s unfettered capitalism was wrong. The Great Depression’s economic ravages spared his family but hit his conscience. In his first book, Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, King recollected precisely when he “saw economic injustice firsthand, and realized that the poor white was exploited as much as the Negro.” He rapidly grew to reason “that the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice” and that both were contingent upon the current capitalistic order. In an early letter to Coretta, he wrote:

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 system it fell 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. . . . Our economic system is going through a radical change, and certainly this change is needed. I would certainly welcome the day to come when there will be a nationalization of industry. Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world.

King would never stop connecting his Christian faith to economic justice and the call for more robust forms of democracy. The Social Gospel theology vindicated and substantiated his belief that the social welfare of the people, aimed at an inclusive beloved community, was a democratic imperative. Two of his early mentors, Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman — African American social gospelers who espoused a democratic Christian socialism — further instilled in him an awareness of the global nature of oppression and exploitation, rooted in imperialism as an international expression of capitalism.

While at Crozer Theological Seminary, King read the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. Informed and well read, King sought to navigate the contradictions and limitations of communism while pointing to the flaws of capitalism. Reflecting on his discovery of Marxism, he concluded:

In short, I read Marx as I read all of the influential historical thinkers — from a dialectical point of view, combining a partial yes and a partial no. Insofar as Marx posited a metaphysical materialism, an ethical relativism, and a strangulating totalitarianism, I responded with an unambiguous no; but insofar as he pointed to weaknesses of traditional capitalism, contributed to the growth of a definite self-consciousness in the masses, and challenged the social conscience of the Christian churches, I responded with a definite yes.

If he abhorred the “deprecation of individual freedom” and the atheism advocated by Communist countries — claiming in a 1962 sermon that “no Christian can be a Communist” whatsoever — he contrasted these defects with the evils of the purportedly opposite system. Whereas most Cold War liberals would articulate their castigation of Communist regimes in ways that made the American economic and political system an irrefutable model, King refused to succumb to simplistic dichotomies.

King was arrested in 1963 for protesting the treatment of blacks in Birmingham. (Wikimedia Commons)

He boldly gave credit to Communism for certain truths, pointing out that “however much is wrong with Communism, we must admit that it arose as a protest against the hardships of the underprivileged,” and went on to caution that “capitalism may lead to a practical materialism that is as pernicious as the theoretical materialism taught by Communism.”

He also remained emphatic that Communist dogma and regimes denied the dignity of men, rendering them “means” rather than “ends.” But he also expressed his concerns about capitalist countries’ greed and neglect for the poor. Talking to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staff in 1966, he reiterated his dialectics:

I always look at Marx with a yes and a no. And there were some things that Karl Marx did that were very good. Some very good things. If you read him, you can see that this man had a great passion for social justice. . . . [But] Karl Marx got messed up, first because he didn’t stick with that Jesus that he had read about; but secondly because he didn’t even stick with Hegel.

As always, King then went on to talk about Jesus as his primary inspiration:

Now this is where I leave Brother Marx and move on toward the Kingdom [of Brotherhood] . . . I am simply saying that God never intended for some of his children to live in inordinate superfluous wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty.

King and the Black Democratic Socialist Tradition

If the state had to be fought when it failed to protect its most oppressed citizens or to enforce democracy, King believed it also had to be entrusted with the power to counteract the nefarious effects of the free market and unbridled capitalism. Democratic socialists and egalitarian unionists were therefore natural allies, with King joining trade union leader A. Philip Randolph and civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin in such a creed.

Rustin, a former member of the Communist Party, reconciled his pacifism and his radical egalitarianism in the creation of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Sent to Montgomery in 1955 to help King organize a nonviolent mass action, Rustin remained a close advisor and played a significant role in the Poor People’s Campaign. He was the most notable advocate of democratic socialism in King’s close circle.

Bayard Rustin and Cleveland Robinson of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 7, 1963. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rustin theorized that a strong social democratic state could address the needs of the most disadvantaged citizens, renouncing individualistic notions of property and profit. In 1956, he explained that because “the mass of Negroes are workers and farmers” whose interests are “fundamentally allied to other workers and farmers,” they should unite to forge a progressive coalition. Blacks, to Rustin as to Du Bois and later to King, were pivotal in that their “agitation . . . for jobs is bound to stimulate white workers to increase militancy.”

Rustin worked closely with Randolph to connect the black liberation struggle with labor, as “freedom cannot be sustained in the midst of eco insecurity and exploitation.” Although not the only leftist among King’s companions during his life, Rustin was certainly the most cogent ambassador for labor and secular socialist theories to the SCLC. He helped King grasp the need to prioritize economic issues.

In 1966, the SCLC allied with the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations to launch a campaign to end slums in Chicago and to open up decent housing to black residents. In January 1966, King decided to bring his movement north and agreed to lead the Chicago fight.

He moved into a rundown apartment in the ghetto of Lawnsdale with Coretta and their children to dramatize urban poverty and subjugation. After several months living with the ghetto’s inhabitants and unsuccessfully participating in fair housing protest marches into all-white neighborhoods, he wrote his last book, Where Do We Go from Here (1967), to a large extent the fruit of his experience in the Chicago slums.

In December 1966, King was invited by the Senate, which had organized hearings on the recent urban uprisings. King’s emphasis on economic justice compelled Sen. Abraham Rubicoff to wonder whether the civil rights movement had “entered a different stage.” King answered in the affirmative but dodged the implicit assumption that racial inequalities were now subsumed under class issues, as though the two were not fundamentally entwined.

He also instructed the senators about the common oppression suffered by poor whites and blacks, whether unemployed or underpaid and underworked, who “huddle in the big cities.” Describing the predicament of black children living in ghettos, he unraveled the continuity of systemic deprivation:

Already in childhood their lives are crushed mentally, emotionally and physically, and then society develops the myth of inferiority to give credence to his life long patterns of exploitation, which can only be described as our system of slavery in the twentieth century.

King later denounced the rich and powerful who had a vested interest in concentrated poverty:

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.

King, who had attended workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, related to the leftist tradition of interracial union organizing. In 1957, he expressed his sense of solidarity and linked fate with labor, telling Highlanders that “the forces that are anti-Negro are by and large anti-labor.” Speaking to a meeting of Teamsters union shop stewards in 1967, he reminded his audience that “Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice.”

Although the scope of the role of leftist organizations with Marxist leanings in the black liberation movement has been debated, the fact remains that for a significant period, a social democratic vision united their members and civil rights activists. From trade unionist E. D. Nixon to Rustin, people with roots in the leftist milieu of the prewar period suffused the post-1955 movement with demands for substantive justice including full citizenship for blacks, strong labor rights, full employment policies, and progressive taxation that could fund a radical welfare state. To them, the government had to remedy past inequality and forcefully eradicate poverty and the mechanisms that perpetuated it.

King’s Last Campaign

Following in the footsteps of Du Bois, King challenged racial liberalism, “the idea that all Americans, regardless of race, should be politically equal, but that the state cannot and indeed should not enforce racial equality by interfering with existing social or economic relations.”

The Poor People’s Campaign King envisioned was more than a class-based movement open to liberals and reformists of goodwill. In 1961, speaking at the Negro American Labor Council, King had already proclaimed, “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.”

King’s call harked back to late-nineteenth-century calls for a fully realized Reconstruction and a fair industrial democracy. At the dusk of his life, he envisaged a campaign as a nonviolent revolutionary mass movement. The Poor People’s Campaign would eventually see the light of day in 1967, as an attempt to build a coalition capable of pursuing the egalitarian agenda Du Bois and scores of black radical egalitarians had in mind.