I work at a civil rights organization, possess a doctorate in US History (for what that’s worth), and tend to field phone calls from community members and journalists in February, officially designated as Black History Month.
As a result, this time of year commonly finds me reading/reviewing US black history classics and/or sources.
I am currently a few chapters into David J. Garrow’s 1986 Pulitzer-winning biography Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference….almost up to Birmingham/1963.
Two impressions. The first is the fortuitous nature and suddeness of the merely 27-year-old King’s emergence as a national figure during the year of the Montgomery bus boycott. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. King used to reflect on the chance involved in all of that.
The second thing is the earliness of his basic tendency towards radicalism and socialism.
Having already read such mid-late-1960s King classics as The Trumpet of Conscience (1967 book) and Where do We Go From Here? (1967 book), “A Testament of Hope” (1968 essay), “A Time to Break the Silence” (1967 speech), and “Remainng Awake Through a Great Revolution” (1968 speech), I knew that the late King had linked the struggle against racism to an essentially democratic-socialist battle against imperialism and class inequality.
I had previously thought this came only out of his experience in the mid-1960s. In Garrow’s book, however, you see King devoting much of his 1949 Christmas holiday to “a close reading of Marx” (p.41). Two years later, in his third year at Crozer Theological Seminary, King (acording to one his professors), “thought the capitalistic system was predicated on exploitation and prejudice, poverty, and that we wouldn’t solve these problems until we got a new social order” (43).
In 1952, according to Coretta Scott King recalled (from the period in which she dated MLK Jr. in Atlanta) King
“talk[ed] about his concern for the masses. He talked about the unequal distribution of wealth and he said ‘It’s so unfair that a small percentage of the population could control all of the wealth.’” Coretta remembered King saying that his minister father “is a capitalist and I don’t believe in capitalism as it is practised in the United States.” King felt “that…his father loved money and thought only about his own family, not the rest of humanity.”
Daddy King (Martin Luther King, Sr.) later said about Junior in the early 1950s that “politically, he often seemed to be drifting away from the basics of capitalism and Western democracy that I felt very strongly about” (p.46).
During the famous boycott, King travels to Chicago and meets with the officials of the largely left-led United Packinghouse Workers union. At one point in Chicago he tells reporters that the boycott is part of a broader, international struggle: “the oppressed people of the world are rising up. They are revolting against colonialism, imperialism and other systems of oppression” (63)
Later in the boycott period (56-57), he tells a mass meeting that “it is bigger than Montgomery….We must oppose all exploitation….We want no classes and castes….We want to set everybody free” (p.71).
In 1958, he comes back from Africa and tells reporters “privileged classes never give up their priveleges without strong resistance…Freedom comes only with persistent revolt” (91).
In 1960, he meets the American democratic socialist Michael Harrington, who is surprised by “how intellectually serious he was, that he was radical on all kinds of econonic issues.” “As far I was concerned,” Harrington related, “he was a socialist” (140).
Of course, early or late, the basic underlying radicalism of King (for all its flaws and limits) is essentially deleted from the official celebration of the man, brought into the mainstream as an official icon long after an assassination that seemed increasingly inevitable as he linked the civil rights crusade ever more firmly to the anti-poverty and anti-imperialist struggles.
King predicted that incorporation in a way, noting that most Americans probably figured everything had pretty much been fixed with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. For the actual King, of course, the historic civil rights and voting rights bills of 1964 and 1965 were likely understood as elementary and regionally specific bourgeois-democratic victories. His point was to spread “the battering ram of social justice” across the entire nation (not just the old South) and to link up with oppressed people the world over to break down what he called the “triple threats that are interrelated”: imperialism, racism, and poverty.
He was aware (from a fairly young age) that capitalism was at the heart of these problems and of the reluctance of many to commit to the full-fledged struggle for justice and democracy.
Two other official American “heroes” whose personally socialist beliefs are rendered invisible by American historical thought control: Helen Keller and (the admittedly not all that political) Albert Einstein (Time magazine’s “Man of the 20th Century”), who published an argument for socialism in an early edition of the Marxist magazine Monthly Review.
For some useful reflections on Keller and the general tendency of official American history to “whitewash” past personalities, see James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995), pp. 9-29, which helps you understand why most of your fellow Americans don’t know about Keller’s bolshevism or— for that matter — Woodrow Wilson’s racism.
Back to King, here is a line from his 1968 address “Remaining Awake” that might resonate for some Americans today, residents of the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world and home to more than 42 million citizens who are so “free” as to lack basic health insurance and where more than a million black children had become so “free” by early 2003 as to live at less than half of the nation’s scandalously low “poverty level”:
“This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soliders – every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called war-on-poverty program; which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.”
“Not only that, [this war] has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young white men and black men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come home they can’t hardly live on the same block together.”
Have you seen the latest segregation indices for metropolitan America in the “Post-Civil Rights Era”?