Martin Luther King: Christian Core, Socialist Bedrock

Against the Current, No. 96, January/February 2002

Paul Le Blanc

Martin Luther King, 1964. (Photo by Ben van Meerendonk. via Wikimedia Commons)

THE LIFE AND example of Martin Luther King, Jr. are central to any quest for a better world—in part because he so effectively illuminated, and helped people struggle against, the realities of racism, highlighting the link between issues of racial and economic justice.  I will argue here that his outlook represents a remarkable blending of Christian, democratic, and socialist perspectives.

As a Christian, King rejected the humanist atheism of Karl Marx which held that “man, unaided by any divine power, can save himself and usher in a new society.” He insisted that “there is a God in the universe who is the ground and essence of all reality,” who is “a Being of infinite love and boundless power,” and the “creator, sustainer, and conserver of values” that are essential to humanity.

“Man cannot save himself, for man is not the measure of all things and humanity is not God,” King tells us. “Bound by the chains of his own sin and finiteness, man needs a Savior.” King scholar Keith Miller has observed, however, that he also “refused to repudiate Marxism wholesale.”[See note 1]

In fact, King had a radical orientation from the very beginning of his political career.  His widow Coretta Scott King noted that “within the first month or so of our meeting,” in 1952, King “talked about working within the framework of democracy to move us toward a kind of socialism,” arguing that “a kind of socialism has to be adopted by our system because the way it is, it’s simply unjust.”

She commented that “Democracy means equal justice, equity in every aspect of our society,” and that King “knew that the basic problem in our society had to do with economic justice, or .  .  .  the contrast of wealth between the haves and the have-nots.  Believe it or not, he spoke these words to me when I first met him. It wasn’t something that he learned later and developed.”

She added: “I think Martin understood from the very beginning that this goal could not be accomplished all at once .  .  .  I had enough training and background myself to appreciate where he was in his thinking .  .  .”[See note 2]

This was a person who was centrally important to King’s life. It may be worth lingering for a few moments on her training and background, which is generally passed over in silence by those discussing King’s life and ideas.

Coretta Scott was born into a poor family in rural Alabama, whose proud and hardworking patriarch—through working in a lumber mill, truck farming, and barbering on the side—was able to secure for his loved ones a more secure life than had been experienced by many Southern Blacks enmeshed in the sharecropping system.

Coretta herself was no stranger to hard physical labor, tending crops and picking cotton.  Poignantly aware of the many aspects of racism that shaped her family’s and her own experience, she was also somewhat protected by living in a rural “all-black community of three generations of land ownership” which “helped to instill in us racial pride, self-respect, and dignity which inevitably gave us the proper self-image.”

Excelling in school, she was able to secure a scholarship to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The experience at Antioch was positive in many ways, but her experience of racism in the North helped to propel her into student activism in the late 1940s.

“Antioch had a chapter of the NAACP and a Race Relations Committee and a Civil Liberties Committee.  I was active in all of them,” she recounted in her memoirs.  “From the first, I had been determined to get ahead, not just for myself, but to do something for my people and for all people.”

The liberal and socially conscious values inculcated through the academic program at Antioch “reinforced the Christian spirit of giving and sharing which had been taught to me by my parents, particularly my father.” Her studies and experiences “reaffirmed my belief that individuals as well as society could move toward the democratic ideal of brotherhood.”[See note 3]

Through her musical activities she had an opportunity to meet and appear on the same program as the famous African-American baritone, Paul Robeson, a left-wing icon for many progressive-minded Blacks and whites.  Swept up in the radical social idealism of the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace (who argued that peace, prosperity, racial equality and social justice required a break from the big business-dominated Democratic and Republican parties), she attended the founding convention of the Progressive Party.

Robeson and the Progressives were severely red-baited in these early Cold War years for being influenced by the Communist Party, but this didn’t stop Coretta from exploring and sharing socialist ideas.  King was aware of her interests, as shown in a 1952 letter to her where he discusses his positive reaction to an old socialist classic, Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward, which she had obviously already read before him: “I welcome the book because much of its content is in line with my basic ideas,” he wrote.  “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.”[See note 4]

Before he met Coretta, King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania from 1948 to 1951.  It was clear to one of his teachers and closest associates there, Rev. J. Pious Barbour, that King “believed Marx had analyzed the economic side of capitalism right” and that “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.” In this period he studied the Communist Manifesto and Capital.[See note 5]

He also immersed himself in the works of left-wing Protestant theologians, of whom, King noted more than once, Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr were the most important to him. Rauschenbusch, whose 1907 Christianity and the Social Crisis reveals a powerful Marxist influence, proclaimed that “the working class is now engaged in a great historic class struggle which is becoming ever more conscious and bitter,” and that “Socialism is the ultimate and logical outcome of the labor movement.”

Rauschenbusch argued that “the new Christian principle of brotherly association must ally itself with the working class if both are to conquer,” since “the force of religious spirit should be bent toward asserting the supremacy of life over property.” Niebuhr, whose 1932 classic Moral Man and Immoral Society critically integrates not only Marx but even more the “brutal realist” Lenin into what was (in that period) a quite radical version of the “Christian realist” synthesis, approvingly quoted from Lenin’s State and Revolution:

In their sum, these restrictions (of middle-class democracy) exclude and thrust out the poor from politics and from active share in democracy.  Marx splendidly grasped the essence of capitalistic democracy, when, in his analysis of the spirit of the commune, he said the oppressed are allowed, once every few years, to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing classes are to represent and repress them in politics.

According to Niebuhr, “a certain system of power, based upon the force which inheres in property, and augmented by the political power of the state is set against the demands of the worker.” In his opinion, “conflict is inevitable, and in this conflict power must be challenged by power.”[See note 6]

Even while attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, King was exposed to liberal and radical religious and political influences through the college president and King family friend Dr. Benjamin Mays. A key figure among Black and white socially conscious clergy, Mays insisted that “if the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot solve the race problem, Christianity is doomed.”

This orientation, Mays’ association with such left-of-center figures as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, as well as W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and his visionary and precisely articulated speaking and preaching styles influenced his colleagues and students—King no less than others.

But there were other influences that King had been exposed to every Sunday as he grew into manhood.  Deeply rooted in African-American preaching traditions are profoundly radical elements—what Keith Miller has called “a system of knowledge and persuasion created by generations of black folk preachers, including his father and grandfather”—that would later find dramatic reflection in King’s life and thought.[See note 7]

Elements of this “system” were also reflected in the works of the radical Black theologian Howard Thurman, who in his 1949 work Jesus and the Disinherited (which influenced King and many others), explains that “the basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.” Thurman added: “The striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who long tarries over the facts.”

That Christianity “became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus,” Thurman insists.  “His message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people.”

This ran parallel to the earlier assertion of Rauschenbusch that “Jesus proceeded from the common people.  He had worked as a carpenter for years and there was nothing in his thinking to neutralize the sense of class solidarity which grows up under such circumstances.  The common people heard him gladly because he said what was in their hearts .  .  .  Jesus was not a mere social reformer .  .  .  He has been called the first socialist.”[See note 8]

No less did it parallel King’s later comments:

We have the power to change America and give a kind of new vitality to the religion of Jesus Christ .  .  .  He initiated the first sit-in movement.  The greatest revolutionary that history has ever known .  .  .  You don’t have to go to Karl Marx to learn how to be a revolutionary.  I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx; I got it from a man named Jesus, a Galilean saint who said he was anointed to heal the broken-hearted.  He was anointed to deal with the problems of the poor. And that is where we get our inspiration.  And we go out in a day when we have a message for the world, and we can change this world and we can change this nation.[See note 9]

During his childhood, King—perceiving the effects of the Great Depression—recalled how he questioned his parents “about the numerous people standing in the breadlines,” and reflected over “the effects of this early childhood experience on my present anticapitalistic feelings.” While in his teens he worked for two summers in a factory with a Black and white workforce where “the poor white was exploited just as much as the Negro,” planting the thought that “the inseparable twin of racial justice was economic justice.”[See note 10]

Socialist Roots of the Civil Rights Struggle

Decisive for the development of the modern civil rights movement were several important left-wing institutions and key activists that had a substantial Marxist influence and socialist-orientation, and whose impact on King was substantial.

Aldon D. Morris, in his fine study The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, has emphasized the role of what he calls “movement halfway houses.” He describes these as having “a relative isolation from the larger society” and not having a mass membership, but as “developing a battery of social change resources such as skilled activists, tactical knowledge, media contacts, workshops, knowledge of past movements, and a vision of a future society.”

Among those institutions that he identifies in this manner, and as playing a vital role in the origins of the civil rights movement, are the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Highlander Folk School, and the Southern Conference Educational Fund.[See note 11]

The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) was the country’s foremost pacifist organization, influenced by Christian and socialist currents and by the example of Mohandas Gandhis non-violent campaigns to free India from British colonial rule. Its Executive Director was the venerable Rev. A.J. Muste.

Muste began as a Christian pacifist who, under the impact of Social Gospel currents personified by Walter Rauschenbusch and others, had shifted from preaching to union organizing to functioning as the director of the left-wing center of labor education of the 1920s and `30s, Brookwood Labor College.

Absorbing a considerable amount of class-struggle experience plus the ideas of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, he became a leader of the homegrown socialist American Workers Party, then merged with the Trotskyists of the Communist League of America to form the Workers Party of the United States.  Muste returned to Christian pacifism in the late 1930s, but never shed essential elements of his Marxist understanding.

It was FOR that attracted a young Black radical James Farmer to participate in the founding of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE).  Others involved with FOR included Howard Thurman, as well as two young ministers and Gandhian radicals who would play key roles in the civil rights movement, James Lawson (prominently active in the Southern movement beginning in 1957, and a leader of the 1968 Memphis struggle of striking sanitation workers) and Glen Smiley (a key white supporter during the Montgomery Bus Boycott), as well as Bayard Rustin, who helped lead the first Freedom Rides in 1942.[See note 12]

Highlander Folk School was founded in rural Tennessee during the early 1930s by Myles Horton, Don West, Elizabeth Hawes, James Dombrowski, and others committed to establishing a progressive labor education center in the South.  Blending religious and Marxist perspectives, they attracted support from such figures as Reinhold Niebuhr, Norman Thomas, and John Dewey.

Highlander was designed “to educate rural and industrial leaders for a new social order,” particularly in union organizing efforts that would advance what Horton called “conscious class action.” West explained that Highlander “educates for a socialized nation” in which “human justice, cooperation, a livelihood for every man and a fair distribution of wealth” would replace the present system of “graft, exploitation, and private profit.”

Hawes noted the school’s “revolutionary purpose” to help bring its students to an awareness of the need for, and the skills needed to struggle for, “a classless society.” At the same time, as Horton later explained, it was informed by the insight that “people have to believe that you genuinely respect their ideas and that your involvement with them is not just an academic exercise.”[See note 13]

From the early 1930s the school viewed the necessity of cooperation among Black and white workers in order to advance the needs of both. Highlander’s central role as a school for CIO workers in the South from the late 1930s through the late 1940s was disrupted by the Cold War, when Communist-influenced unions were driven out of, and left-wing influences in general dramatically marginalized within, labor’s mainstream.

By the early 1950s, Highlander shifted “to extend its activities into wider fields of democratization,” and in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision on school desegregation it became a center for education and training to assist the civil rights movement.  Among those attending Highlander workshops were people who initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, such as NAACP activists Rosa Parks and E.D. Nixon.

Highlander staff member Septima Clark, who became director of those workshops in 1954, developed a Citizenship Education Program that combined teaching literacy and voter registration information with fundamental discussions on social, economic and political questions.[See note 14]

Highlander pioneer James Dombrowski also played a central role in creating the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF).  Dombrowski, whose 1936 study Early Days of Christian Socialism in America remains a minor classic, was a protegé of Rev. Harry F. Ward, furthest to the left of all the faculty at Union Theological Seminary (eventually gravitating too close to the Communist Party to be tolerated by most of his seminarian colleagues).

Dombrowski served as director of the left-liberal Southern Conference for Human Welfare, and was a prominent supporter of the Progressive Party campaign of 1948.  When he initiated SCEF in the late 1940s, he was able to attract such prominent African-American supporters as Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College, who served as SCEF vice-president until 1954.

Several years later, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, centrally involved in the Birmingham, Alabama civil rights struggles and a close associate of Martin Luther King, would become SCEF’s president, defending SCEF staffers Carl and Anne Braden when they were attacked by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  The Bradens were independent-minded socialists who had worked for left-led unions, been involved with the Progressive Party, and courageously challenged segregated housing where they lived in Louisville, Kentucky.

They edited the SCEF monthly journal The Southern Patriot, which played a significant role in the early civil rights movement.  It was Anne Braden who drove Martin Luther King, Jr. from a 1957 conference at Highlander Folk School where, among other things, he first heard the song “We Shall Overcome,” sung by Pete Seeger.  King commented, “There’s something about that song that haunts you.”[See note 15]

One of the most authoritative figures in the Black community nationally was A. Philip Randolph, whose political career began as a Socialist Party member and who published a radical magazine, The Messenger.  His discovery of Marxism, he later commented, was “like finally running into an idea which gives you your outlook on life,” which now included the view that “when no profits can be made from race friction, no one will longer be interested in stirring up race prejudice.”

Running as a Socialist Party candidate in 1918, he proclaimed: “the new Negro is here, and there will be many more of them to enrich the socialist movement in the United States.” Hailing the Russian Revolution, The Messenger asserted: “We want a patriotism not streaked with race, color, or sex lines.  What we really need is a patriotism of liberty, justice, and joy. This is Bolshevik patriotism, and we want more of that brand in the United States.”[See note 6]

While Randolph turned against what he considered to be a sectarian and manipulative dynamic inherent in the Communist movement during the Stalin era, there is no indication that he ever repudiated his support for the earlier incarnation of Bolshevism.  His longtime aide Bayard Rustin commented many years later that “democratic socialism” was “the political system which was the foundation of his strategy and tactics in the trade union movement, and in the civil rights movement.”[See note 17]

During the 1920s and 1930s he played a central role in organizing and building the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a modest but vital bastion of Black strength in the labor movement and of down-to-earth radicalism in the Black community.

In 1941 Randolph built an effective March on Washington Movement to protest racial discrimination in the armed forces and war industries.  This forced President Roosevelt (as a condition for calling off the march) to sign an Executive Order banning discrimination in war industries, government training programs, and government industries.

“Power and pressure are at the foundation of the march of social justice and reform .  .  .  power and pressure do not reside in the few, and intelligentsia, they lie in and flow from the masses,” he commented, adding: “Power is the active principle of only the organized masses, the masses united for a definite purpose.”[See note 18]

In the decades leading up to the emergence of the modern civil rights movement, Randolph had a profound impact.  Among many contributions, he gave immediate and substantial backup to Sleeping Car Porters local union president and Montgomery, Alabama NAACP leader E.D. Nixon when the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott began.  It was Randolph (with Rustin) who initiated and oversaw the organization of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Particularly important in conceiving of and helping to found the organization that King would lead after the victory of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), were three capable Northern activists who also had an important influence on King—Stanley Levison, Ella Baker, and Bayard Rustin.

All were part of a loose but significant left-liberal group formed in 1955 known as In Friendship, designed to provide Northern assistance for school desegregation.  Levison, a New York attorney, had been active in the Communist Party from the 1930s until the early 1950s—then concluded (while maintaining his socialist orientation) that it no longer was an effective vehicle for social change.

Ella Baker was never a Communist but had attended radical Brookwood Labor College in 1931, and worked in New York City for many years for the NAACP—absorbing and interacting with various left-wing currents.  “We won’t be free until we’ve done something to change society,” she once commented, and “the only society that can serve the needs of large masses of poor people is a socialist society.”

Bayard Rustin had been a shining light in the Young Communist League in the late 1930s, then broke from the Communist Party with sharp political differences in 1941.  He then worked closely with A. Philip Randolph in the March on Washington movement of 1941, was attracted to the Gandhian pacifism of FOR, and became a prominent figure in the War Resisters League and CORE. “He was like a superman,” recalled Stokely Carmichael, “hooking socialism up with the black movement, organizing blacks.”

Rustin never abandoned his Marxist orientation and, when he became Executive Director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute in the late 1960s was still citing the Communist Manifesto as essential reading for those wishing to understand contemporary social issues and strategies for social change.*[See note 19]

King’s development, strengthened by such influences as these, resulted in an orientation not typically associated with Black Southern preachers.  Actor Ossie Davis, a prominent figure among left-wing African-American intellectuals, later remembered that King’s “philosophy of nonviolence seemed dangerous nonsense to many of us in the North.” But King had a powerful impact on Davis and his milieu when he came to speak to them in person.

“Here was something more than Reverend ‘Pork Chops’—more than hellfire and brimstone.” Speaking in “that mellifluous, rolling baritone of his” with impressive eloquence and mounting passion, “erecting one tower of rhetoric after another,” moving the crowd to enthusiasm, “it was perfectly clear—nonviolence notwithstanding—that we in the black church, and in the black community, had found ourselves a leader.”

Left-wing lawyer Conrad Lynn, closely associated with Davis, was no less skeptical of King’s pacifism, but concluded that “in retrospect, it is clear that the nonviolent strategy and tactics of Martin Luther King were the best available weapons for the black people in the period of the sixties,” adding: “Martin Luther King, by his strong stand against the Vietnam war and his final alliance with the union garbage collectors of Memphis, showed that he was capable of growth into the most significant leader the black people have had in this century.”

The seasoned Black revolutionary C.L.R. James also concluded—after intensive discussions with King—that King was “a man whose ideas were as advanced as any of us on the Left.”[See note 20]

King’s Strategic Orientation

Describing the civil rights movement, King asserted that “we are engaged in a social revolution,” explaining: “It is a movement to bring about certain basic structural changes in the architecture of American society.  That is certainly revolutionary.” At the beginning of 1964 he noted that while African Americans were “making progress .  .  .  in the middle classes,” the realities of everyday life for “the masses remain about the same.”[See note 21]

He shared with key figures A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levison and others a strategic vision of how racism is to be overcome.  The achievements and tragedy of the modern civil rights movement cannot be understood unless we consider that vision.  This involved a Marxist-influenced analysis emanating from various sources—the Socialist Party, Highlander Folk School and Southern Conference Educational Fund, activists formerly relating to the Communist Party, Christian Socialists connected with A.J. Muste’s Fellowship of Reconciliation, etc.

King and his co-thinkers had a profound grasp both of individual racism (conscious and unconscious) as well as institutional racism (the legal form predominant in the South and the de facto form prevailing in the North).  They recognized that it made sense to focus the anti-racist struggle where racism was most vulnerable (given the new national and world situation after World War II)—against the Southern “Jim Crow” system.

If the struggle was both militant and nonviolent, it would be possible to win victories and at the same time to help increasing numbers of whites to push back within and among themselves various forms of conscious and unconscious racism.

King perceived a dividing-line between the very rich and everybody else, between the blue-collar and white-collar working-class majority (which included the working poor and the unemployed), and the elite of business owners and executives above them who seek to control and profit from their labor.

Of course, divisions of race and racism cut across this class divide.  But the majority of Blacks and whites happened to be part of this broadly defined working class having common economic interests.  Shifts in identity-consciousness among whites—involving a further erosion of racism—would have the possibility of coming to the fore only when the civil rights movement transcended the focus on legal segregation in the South to take up a broader agenda involving the entire nation.

And at a certain point, King and his co-thinkers believed, simply in order to push back the effects of racism on African Americans, it would become necessary to challenge the de facto form of institutionalized racism prevalent in the North.  This could only be done effectively by attacking its underlying economic roots, which in turn could only be done effectively by developing a broader program for economic justice.

While such a program would be initiated by Blacks, it would be powerfully relevant to a majority of whites.  The resulting interracial coalition for economic justice would have the dual function of eliminating the roots of institutional racism and creating an atmosphere of idealism and common struggle that would help to further push back various forms of individual (conscious and unconscious) racism.

This orientation was advanced at a conference held just after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  The post-march conference was organized by activists in and around the Socialist Party.  “One began to understand what was meant by a march for `jobs and freedom,'” noted independent journalist I.F. Stone.  “For most Negroes, civil rights alone will only be the right to join the underprivileged whites.”

A. Philip Randolph pointed out: “We must liberate not only ourselves, but our white brothers and sisters.” Stone’s report continued in this way:

The direction in which full emancipation lies was indicated when Mr. Randolph spoke of the need to extend the public sector of the economy.  His brilliant assistant on the March, Bayard Rustin, urged an economic Master Plan to deal with the technological unemployment that weighs so heavily on the Negro and threatens to create a permanently depressed class of whites and blacks living previously on the edges of an otherwise affluent society.  It was clear from the discussion that neither tax cuts nor public works nor job training (for what jobs?) would solve the problem while automation with giant steps made so many workers obsolete.  The civil rights movement, Mr. Rustin said, could not get beyond a certain level unless it merged into a broader plan of social change.[See note 22]

In 1966 A. Philip Randolph issued A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, endorsed by over 200 prominent civil rights, labor, social activist and academic figures.  He described the Freedom Budget as being dedicated “to the full goals of the 1963 March.”  One of its strongest supporters was Martin Luther King, Jr., who insisted that “the ultimate answer to the Negroes’ economic dilemma will be found in a massive federal program for all the poor along the lines of A. Philip Randolph’s Freedom Budget, a kind of Marshall Plan for the disadvantaged.”[See note 23]

Randolph himself elaborated on the Freedom Budget’s specifics (involving a ten-year federal expenditure of $180 billion) and its meaning:

The “Freedom Budget” spells out a specific and factual course of action, step by step, to start in early 1967 toward the practical liquidation of poverty in the United States by 1975.  The programs urged in the “Freedom Budget” attack all of the major causes of poverty—unemployment and underemployment; substandard pay, inadequate social insurance and welfare payments to those who cannot or should not be employed; bad housing; deficiencies in health services, education, and training; and fiscal and monetary policies which tend to redistribute income regressively rather than progressively.  The “Freedom Budget” leaves no room for discrimination in any form, because its programs are addressed to all who need more opportunity and improved incomes and living standards—not just to some of them.[See note 24]

Randoph explained that such programs “are essential to the Negro and other minority groups striving for dignity and economic security in our society,” but that “the abolition of poverty (almost three-quarters of whose victims are white) can be accomplished only through action which embraces the totality of the victims of poverty, neglect, and injustice.”

He added that “in the process everyone will benefit, for poverty is not an isolated circumstance affecting only those entrapped by it. It reflects—and affects—the performance of our national economy, our rate of economic growth, our ability to produce and consume, the condition of our cities, the levels of our social services and needs, the very quality of our lives.” In Randolph’s opinion the success of this effort would depend on “a mighty coalition among the civil rights and labor movements, liberal and religious forces, students and intellectuals—the coalition expressed in the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”[See note 25]

The realization that such a course was necessary to achieve the goals of the civil rights movement propelled Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to begin focusing more sharply on economic struggles from 1965 to 1968.  A 1965-66 campaign in Chicago touched off revealing explosions of racist hatred and violence from white working-class and “middle class” neighborhoods, and was ultimately outmaneuvered with all manner of far-reaching verbal “concessions”—by the powerful political machine of Mayor Richard Daley.

But some of this experience helped to inform and fuel a much more ambitious Poor Peoples Campaign, designed to mobilize a massive interracial movement in an uncompromising struggle to eliminate poverty throughout the United States.  Involving what one of his biographers has described as “a proletarian assault on Washington,” [See note 26] and in part under the impact of the Vietnam war, the campaign had a far more radical tone than what Rustin and Randolph had articulated.

King appealed for “the dispossessed of this country” to “organize a revolution” that would eliminate poverty:

I can’t see the answer in riots.  On the other hand, I can’t see the answer in tender supplications for justice.  I see the answer in an alternative to both of these, and that is militant non-violence that is massive enough, that is attention-getting enough to dramatize the problems, that will be as attention-getting as a riot, that will not destroy life or property in the process.  And this is what we hope to do in Washington through our movement.

We feel that there must be some structural changes now, there must be a radical reordering of priorities, there must be a de-escalation and a final stopping of the war in Vietnam and an escalation of the war against poverty and racism here at home. And I feel that this is only going to be done when enough people get together and express their determination through that togetherness and make it clear that we are not going to allow any military-industrial complex to control this country.

One of the great tragedies of the war in Vietnam is that it has strengthened the military-industrial complex, and it must be made clear now that there are some programs that we can cut back on—the space program and certainly the war in Vietnam—and get on with this program of a war on poverty.  Right now we don’t even have a skirmish against poverty, and we really need an all out, mobilized war that will make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.[See note 27]

A militant union organizing drive and strike by Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee came to be seen by King as an essential prelude to the Poor People’s Campaign: “the road to Washington goes through Memphis.” He hailed that struggle for “highlighting the economic issue” and “going beyond purely civil rights to questions of human rights.”

Noting at a workers’ rally that “along with wages and other securities, you’re struggling for the right to organize,” King commended the strikers: “This is the way to gain power.  Don’t go back to work until all your demands are met.” He saw the strike and the militant demonstrations in support of the strike as constituting “a rejuvenation of the movement.”[See note 28]

It was in this context that King was killed.  His death coincided with a deeper political defeat for the movement that he led—and also for the country as a whole.  This defeat was rooted in some of the same realities that had contributed to the movement’s earlier victories.

Beyond Defeat

The successes of the civil rights movement in overcoming the racist segregation of the South had, after all, been related to decisions of key elements in the U.S. political-economic establishment.  In Northern urban areas during the 1950s and 1960s, with the Northward shift of the African-American population, liberal politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties were, of course, increasingly concerned to appeal to the growing number of Black voters.

No less significantly, such politicians and the powerful economic interests they were associated with felt the pressures of the Cold War—especially the competition between the United States and the USSR for influence among the overwhelmingly non-white populations of Asia, Africa and Latin America.  Such realities required that the U.S. political establishment appear to be supportive and responsive as civil rights activists mounted non-violent assaults on the South’s Jim Crow system.[See note 29]

But the same political-economic elite was hardly prepared to embrace any serious challenge to the nation’s economic structures and distribution of wealth.  The reliance on “friends” in the Democratic and Republican parties proved to be fatal to the radical strategy represented by Randolph and King. Laboring to win political support for Randolph’s economic program, Bayard Rustin found, according to his biographer, that “the Freedom Budget ‘didn’t sell’—not under the Lyndon Johnson presidency and surely not under his conservative successor, Richard Nixon.”

Randolph could only complain: “This system is a market economy in which investment and production are determined more by the anticipation of profits than by the desire to achieve social justice.” In the last year of his life, King, refusing to set aside his radical commitments (as Randolph and Rustin chose to do), struggled to push beyond this limitation.[See note 30]

The final defeat suffered by King and the movement he led is instructive—but so are the earlier victories.  The radical ideas that he expressed so eloquently, and the strategic orientation flowing from them, were rooted in a broader political culture in which Christian values and democratic principles merged with socialist insights.  It is a legacy that remains relevant at the dawn of a new century.

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “How Should a Christian View Communism?” The Strength to Love (New York: Pocket Books, 1964), 115; Keith D. Miller, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 105.
    (Back to text)
  2. Coretta Scott King, “Thoughts and Reflections,” in We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Freedom Struggle, ed. by Peter J. Albert and Ronald Hoffman (New York: Pantheon Books/United State Capitol Historical Society, 1990), 253, 254, 255.
    (Back to text)
  3. Coretta Scott King, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 25- 40, 43-45; photograph of “Coretta Scott at Progressive Party convention, Philadelphia, July 1948” (holding “Wallace/Taylor `48” pennant and wearing convention participant’s badge) in Clayborne Carson, ed., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume II: Rediscovering Precious Values, July 1951-November 1955 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), photographs following page 37 (fourth photo).
    (Back to text)
  4. Letter to Coretta reproduced in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by Clayborne Carson (New York: Time Warner Co., 1998), 36.  On Robeson and the Progressive Party see Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson, A Biography (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), and Curtis D. MacDougall, Gideon’s Army, 3 vols. (New York: Marzani and Munsell, 1965).
    (Back to text)
  5. Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 67; David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 43.
    (Back to text)
  6. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, (New York: Macmillan, 1907), 327, 408, 409, 413; Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), xv, 149, 179, 180, 194.
    (Back to text)
  7. Miller, op.  cit., 5, 41-44.
    (Back to text)
  8. Howard Thurman, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life, ed. by Walter Earl Fluker and Catherine Tumber (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 138, 143, 146; Rauschenbusch, 84, 91.
    (Back to text)
  9. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by Clayborne Carson (New York: Time Warner Co., 1998), 351.
    (Back to text)
  10. Ibid., 1-2, 10-11.
    (Back to text)
  11. Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (The Free Press, 1984), 139, 140.
    (Back to text)
  12. Ibid., 157-166.  Also see Joanne Ooiman Robinson, And Abraham Went Out: A Biography of A.J. Muste (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981), and Nat Hentoff, ed., The Essays of A.J. Muste (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970).
    (Back to text)
  13. Morris, op.  cit., 141-157; John M. Glen, Highlander, No Ordinary School, Second Edition (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996), 25, 27, 28; Myles Horton, with Judith Kohl and Hebert Kohl, The Long Haul, An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 43-44.  Also see Eliot Wigginton, ed. Refuse to Stand Silently By: An Oral History of Grass Roots Activism in America, 1921-1964 (New York: Anchor Books, 1992).
    (Back to text)
  14. Glen, 155-206.
    (Back to text)
  15. Morris, 166-173; Irwin Klibaner, “Southern Conference Educational Fund,” Encyclopedia of the American Left, ed. by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, Dan Georgakas (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 736-737; Frank T. Adams, James A. Dombrowski, An American Heretic, 1897-1983 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992); Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 98.  An informative and insightful “insider’s” account of the early civil rights movement by Anne Braden, The Southern Freedom Movement in Perspective, was published as a special issue of the socialist magazine Monthly Review, July-August 1965.  The basic story it tells is essentially corroborated in elaborate detail by later scholarship: John Egerton, Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters, America in the King Years 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989); and Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire, America in the King Years 1963-65 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999).  Also relevant is Gerald Horne, Black and Red: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-1963 (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986), especially 223-275.
    (Back to text)
  16. Jervis Anderson, A. Philip Randolph, A Biographical Portrait (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), 63; Paula F. Pfeffer, A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 10; Kenneth O’Reilly, Black Americans: The FBI Files, ed. by David Gallen (New York: Carroll and Graff Publications, 1994), 312.
    (Back to text)
  17. Bayard Rustin, “In Memory of A. Philip Randolph,” page 2 of reprint from AFL-CIO American Federationist, June 1979.
    (Back to text)
  18. Anderson, A. Philip Randolph, 248.
    (Back to text)
  19. Joanne Grant, Ella Baker, Freedom Bound (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998), 100, 102-103, 111, 218; David J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.  (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1983), 21-77; Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen, A Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 238; O’Reilly, Black American: The FBI Files, 382-423; Dan Georgakas, “Bayard Rustin,” Encyclopedia of the American Left, ed. by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, Dan Georgakas (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 663-665.  A 1967 telephone interview with Shirley Harris Le Blanc (my mother)—at that time a student in the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Social Work—elicited Rustin’s comment about the Communist Manifesto.
    (Back to text)
  20. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, With Ossie and Ruby, In This Life Together (New York: William Morrow, 1998), 249-251; Conrad Lynn, There is a Fountain: The Autobiography of a Civil Rights Lawyer (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill and Co., 1979), 184; Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 717; Dyson, 88.
    (Back to text)
  21. Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 310, 323.
    (Back to text)
  22. I.F. Stone, “The March on Washington,” In a Time of Torment (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 123-124.
    (Back to text)
  23. A.  Philip Randolph, “Introduction,” A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans (New York: A. Philip Randolph Institute, 1966), vi; King, A Testament of Hope, 578.
    (Back to text)
  24. Randolph, “Introduction,” A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, iii.
    (Back to text)
  25. Ibid., iv, vi. Generous excerpts from the Freedom Budget can be found in Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis, eds., Black Workers: A Documentary History From Colonial Times to the Present (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 571-580.  Also see Anderson, A. Philip Randolph, 330, 344; Pfeffer, 286-291.
    (Back to text)
  26. David L. Lewis, King, A Biography, Revised Edition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 385.
    (Back to text)
  27. King, A Testament of Hope, 650, 674-675.
    (Back to text)
  28. Gerald D.; Knight, The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, and the Poor People’s Campaign (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 52; Lewis, King, 380.
    (Back to text)
  29. Raymond S.; Franklin and Solomon Resnik, The Political Economy of Racism (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), 203-233; Adolph Reed, Jr., Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 55-78; Mary I. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).
    (Back to text)
  30. Anderson, Bayard Rustin, 289; Anderson, A.Philip Randolph, 345; Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America, An Analytic History (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1970), 110-114.
    (Back to text)

Paul Le Blanc is the author of A Short History of the U.S. Working Class and teaches at La Roche College.

from ATC 96 (January/February 2002)


  1. A story well told…it puts to shame our modern wealth worshipping brain dead creationist crew whose only text is genesis and only motive is greed…I am a life long atheist, but it is no problem for me to salute the achievement and example of Martin Luther King, a warrior for justice in this world.

  2. This was a very well written column on Martin and Corretta (Scott) King. I learned alot about his desire to bring the races together. We strive to do that at our Church as well. We proclaim to be an inter-racial, inter-generational, into Christ Church. It is the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg in Pittsburgh.

    Thank you for all this great info, we will be having a march and a service with the city choir on Monday, (the day his birthday is celebrated).


Comments are closed.