A True and Visionary Radical, Martin Luther King Jr. Was No Moderate
In his absorbing profile of the writer Alex Haley (author of "Roots" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X") in the New York Times Book Review a year ago, Michael Patrick Hearn made a familiar mistake. He wrote: "Politically [Haley] he was a moderate, philosophically more Martin than Malcolm."
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was no moderate. Today, he is viewed as something of an American saint. His name adorns schools and street signs. His birthday—January 15, 1929—is observed as a national holiday on the third Monday of January each year. This year as in years past, Americans from across the political spectrum invoke King's name to justify their beliefs and actions.
But in his day, King was considered a dangerous troublemaker. Both Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson worried that King was being influenced by Communists. King was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media. The establishment's campaign to denigrate King worked. In August 1966 - as King was bringing his civil rights campaign to Northern cities to address poverty, slums, housing segregation and bank lending discrimination—the Gallup Poll found that 63% of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of King, compared with 33% who viewed him favorably.
King called himself a democratic socialist. He believed that America needed a "radical redistribution of economic and political power." He challenged America's class system and its racial caste system. He opposed US militarism and imperialism, especially the country's misadventure in Vietnam. He was a strong ally of the nation's labor union movement. He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers' strike.
King's views evolved over time. He entered the public stage with some hesitation, reluctantly becoming the spokesperson for the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, at the age of 26. King began his activism in Montgomery as a crusader against racial segregation, but the struggle for civil rights radicalized him into a fighter for broader economic and social justice and peace.
During the early 1960s, the nation's media accurately depicted both King and Malcolm X as threats to the status quo. But the media portrayed Malcolm X as an almost demonic force because he described white people as "devils," and called on Black Americans to use self-defense - including violence, if necessary - to protect themselves from racist thugs and police brutality. King - a proponent of nonviolent civil disobedience and racial integration - was dismayed when Malcolm X, SNCC's Stokely Carmichael, and others began advocating "black power," which he warned would alienate white allies and undermine a genuine interracial movement for economic justice.
Just as King's views evolved over the years, Malcolm X's ideas changed, too. Toward the end of his life, he had rejected Black separatism and by-any-means-necessary tactics. In 1963, he traveled to Africa, the Middle East and Europe, where he met radical white people whose political ideas he agreed with. When he was in Ghana, someone asked him "What do you think about socialism?" Malcolm X asked: "Is it good for Black people?" "It seems to be," came the response. "Then I'm for it," Malcolm X said.
In 1964 he broke with the Nation of Islam and rejected its policy of non-cooperation with the civil rights movement. He reached out to King and other civil rights leaders.
When Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, King sent this message to his wife: "I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem."
In reviewing King's life, we can see that the seeds of his later radicalism were planted early.
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929, the son of a prominent black minister. Despite growing up in a solidly middle-class family, King saw the widespread human suffering caused by the Depression, particularly in the black community. In 1950, while in graduate school, he wrote an essay describing the "anticapitalistic feelings" he experienced as a youngster as a result of seeing unemployed people standing in breadlines.
During King's first year at Morehouse College, civil rights and labor activist A. Philip Randolph spoke on campus. Randolph predicted that the near future would witness a global struggle that would end white supremacy and capitalism. He urged the students to link up with "the people in the shacks and the hovels," who, although "poor in property," were "rich in spirit."
After graduating from Morehouse in 1948, King studied theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania (where he read both Mohandas Gandhi and Karl Marx), planning to follow in his father's footsteps and join the ministry. In 1955, he earned his doctorate from Boston University, where he studied the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential liberal theologian. While in Boston, he told his girlfriend (and future wife), Coretta Scott, that "a society based on making all the money you can and ignoring people's needs is wrong."
When King moved to Montgomery to take his first pulpit at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he was full of ideas but had no practical experience in politics or activism. But history sneaked up on him. On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress and veteran activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), decided to resist the city's segregation law by refusing to move to the back of the bus on her way home from work. She was arrested. Two other long-term activists - E. D. Nixon (leader of the NAACP and of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and Jo Ann Robinson (a professor at the all-black Alabama State College and a leader of Montgomery's Women's Political Council)—determined that Parks' arrest was a ripe opportunity for a one-day boycott of the much-despised segregated bus system. Nixon and Robinson asked black ministers to use their Sunday sermons to spread the word. Some refused, but many others, including King, agreed.
The boycott was very effective. Most black residents stayed off the buses. Within days, the boycott leaders formed a new group, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). At Nixon's urging, they elected a hesitant King as president, in large part because he was new in town and not embroiled in the competition for congregants and visibility among black ministers. He was also well educated and already a brilliant orator, and thus would be a good public face for the protest movement. The ministers differed over whether to call off the boycott after one day but agreed to put the question up to a vote at a mass meeting.
That night, 7,000 blacks crowded into (and stood outside) the Holt Street Baptist Church. Inspired by King's words—"There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression"—they voted unanimously to continue the boycott. It lasted for 381 days and resulted in the desegregation of the city's buses.
During that time, King honed his leadership skills, aided by advice from two veteran organizers, Bayard Rustin and Rev. Glenn Smiley, who had been sent to Montgomery by the pacifist group, Fellowship of Reconciliation. During the boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, and he was subjected to personal abuse. But - with the assistance of the new medium of television - he emerged as a national figure.
In 1957, with the help of Rustin and organizer Ella Baker, King launched the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help spread the civil rights crusade to other cities. He helped lead local campaigns in different cities, including Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, where thousands marched to demand an end to segregation in defiance of court injunctions forbidding any protests. While participating in these protests, King also sought to keep the fractious civil rights movement together, despite the rivalries among the NAACP, the Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and SCLC.
Between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles, spoke more than 2,500 times, and was arrested at least 20 times, always preaching the gospel of nonviolence. King attended workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which connected him to a network of radicals, pacifists and union activists from around the country whose ideas helped widen his political horizons.
It is often forgotten that the August 1963 protest rally at the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King was proud of the civil rights movement's success in winning the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year. But he realized that neither law did much to provide better jobs or housing for the masses of black poor in either the urban cities or the rural South. "What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter," he asked, "if you can't afford to buy a hamburger?"
King had hoped that the bus boycott, sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience would stir white southern moderates, led by his fellow clergy, to see the immorality of segregation and racism. His famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written in 1963, outlines King's strategy of using nonviolent civil disobedience to force a response from the southern white establishment and to generate sympathy and support among white liberals and moderates.
"The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation," he wrote, and added, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
King eventually realized that many white Americans had at least a psychological stake in perpetuating racism. He began to recognize that racial segregation was devised not only to oppress African Americans but also to keep working-class whites from challenging their own oppression by letting them feel superior to blacks.
"The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow," King said from the Capitol steps in Montgomery, following the 1965 march from Selma. "And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man."
When King launched a civil rights campaign in Chicago in 1965, he was shocked by the hatred and violence expressed by whites as he and his followers marched through the streets of segregated neighborhoods in Chicago and its suburbs. He saw that the problem in Chicago's ghetto was not legal segregation but "economic exploitation"—slum housing, overpriced food and low-wage jobs—"because someone profits from its existence."
These experiences led King to develop a more radical outlook. King supported President Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty in 1964, but, like his friend and ally Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, King thought that it did not go nearly far enough. He began talking openly about the need to confront "class issues," which he described as "the gulf between the haves and the have-nots."
In 1966 King confided 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."
King became increasingly committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. Invited to address the AFL-CIO's annual convention in 1961, King observed, "Our needs are identical with labor's needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.
He continued: "The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them."
In a 1961 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, King 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."
Speaking to a meeting of Teamsters union shop stewards in 1967, King said, "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."
King's growing critique of capitalism coincided with his views about American imperialism. By 1965 he had turned against the Vietnam War, viewing it as an economic as well as a moral tragedy. But he was initially reluctant to speak out against the war. He understood that his fragile working alliance with LBJ would be undone if he challenged the president's leadership on the war. Although some of his close advisers tried to discourage him, he nevertheless made the break in April 1967, in a bold and prophetic speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, entitled "Beyond Vietnam - A Time to Break Silence." King called America the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and linked the struggle for social justice with the struggle against militarism. King argued that Vietnam was stealing precious resources from domestic programs and that the Vietnam War was "an enemy of the poor." In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), King wrote, "The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America."
In early 1968, King told journalist David Halberstam, "For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you've got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values."
King kept trying to build a broad movement for economic justice that went beyond civil rights. In January, 1968, he announced plans for a Poor People's Campaign, a series of protests to be led by an interracial coalition of poor people and their allies among the middle-class liberals, unions, religious organizations and other progressive groups, to pressure the White House and Congress to expand the War on Poverty. At King's request, socialist activist Michael Harrington (author of The Other America, which helped inspire Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to declare a war on poverty) drafted a Poor People's Manifesto that outlined the campaign's goals. In April, King was in Memphis, Tennessee, to help lend support to striking African American garbage workers and to gain recognition for their union. There, he was assassinated, at age 39, on April 4, a few months before the first protest action of the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, DC.
President Johnson utilized this national tragedy to urge Congress to quickly enact the Fair Housing Act, legislation to ban racial discrimination in housing, which King had strongly supported for two years. He signed the bill a week after King's assassination.
Throughout his life, King had his moments of despair. He lamented that the factions within the civil rights movement undermined its potential. He was frustrated at the reluctance of some liberal politicians, including President Johnson, to fully embrace the freedom movement unless they were confronted with protests. He wondered whether he had the stamina needed to endure the constant travel, speeches, and threats on his life.
But King would have rejected the nihilism and fatalism of what is now called "Afro-Pessimism," a perspective that views American racism as so intractable that no movement for justice can redeem the nation's democracy, or its soul.
King would certainly be appalled by the recent upsurge of white supremacist and neo-fascist violence, catalyzed in part by Donald Trump. But he would recognize that they are the heirs of racist thugs like Bull Connor, George Wallace, the White Citizens Councils, and the Ku Klux Klan of his day.
If he were alive today, King would no doubt still be on the front lines, lending his voice and his energy to major battles for justice.
Voting rights: Along with other civil rights leaders, King fought hard to dismantle Jim Crow laws that kept blacks from voting. He was proud of his role in pushing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. He'd be outraged by the Supreme Court's rulings to weaken the law that, among other things, have increased the number of black voters and black elected officials. Today, he'd be fighting to stop voter suppression by Republican-controlled states—for example, by requiring photo IDs in order to vote, shrinking the early-voting period, and ending same-day voter registration and pre-registration for teenagers who will turn 18 by Election Day. He'd be mobilizing on behalf of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Gun violence: During the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, King faced constant death threats and feared for his family's life. He owned several guns and allowed armed guards to protect his home. But Bayard Rustin—a pacifist who was one of King's closest advisers—persuaded King to give up his guns and guards and embrace a nonviolent strategy.
King's commitment to nonviolence grew stronger as he grew older. After John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, King wrote: "By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes."
Today he would be pushing for tougher limits on gun ownership. He would have joined activists who are fighting to overturn states' shoot-first "stand your ground" laws and “open carry” laws. He would be calling on cities, colleges and churches to divest from companies that manufacture military-style assault weapons.
Mass incarceration: King recognized that the criminal justice system has long had a double standard when it comes to the treatment of black and white Americans. Today he would be joining groups like the ACLU and Black Lives Matter that have been protesting policies that have resulted in over two million Americans behind bars, many for nonviolent, minor offenses. He'd be supporting the growing number of progressive district attorneys and prison reformers who advocate for changing the cash bail system that ensnares innocent poor people behind bars. He'd be in the streets with activists and their allies demanding reforms to hold police accountable for racial profiling and the killing of unarmed Black Americans.
Income inequality and workers’ rights: King warned about the "gulf between the haves and the have-nots." That gulf has gotten wider. During the final few years of his life, King focused much of his energy on helping low-wage workers fight for rights and respect. His insistence that America needed a "better distribution of wealth" is even more timely today.
Today he would join the growing campaigns to unionize and improve pay and working conditions for workers who earn poverty-level wages. Raising the minimum wage was one of the more demands of the March on Washington. Today he might disrupt Walmart stockholder meetings to demand that the company pay employees a living wage, and join Amazon, Starbucks, and other workers on their picket lines for economic fairness. He'd also be vocal about raising the current federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, which Congress hasn't increased since 2009, to at least $15 an hour. He’d be pleased by a recent Gallup poll finding that 71 percent of Americans support unions—the highest level since 1965.
Women's reproductive freedom: In 1966, King was one of four recipients of Planned Parenthood's first Margaret Sanger Award, named for the group's founder, a pioneer in educating women about birth control. In accepting the award, King said that "there is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger's early efforts." He noted how "at the turn of the century, she went into the slums and set up a birth-control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions."
King never spoke publicly about his views on abortion, and he was murdered five years before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, but he was a fervent advocate for universal health care.
"Of all the forms of inequality," he said in 1966, "injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane." Today, he’d be part of the movement to protect women's access to health care and reproductive freedom that are under attack by the U.S. Supreme Court, conservative governors and state legislators, and anti-abortion activists. He would be appalled by the Supreme Court’s ruling last year to overturn Roe v Wade. He's being linking arms with others to challenge those who are trying to shut down Planned Parenthood clinics.
Immigrant rights: King would be pleased by the ties between the civil rights and immigrant rights movements. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the original Freedom Riders and a close King ally, once spoke at a rally and explained: "Martin Luther King would be very proud. We are white, black, Hispanic, Native American -- we are one family, in one house, and we are not going to let anybody turn us around."
King would be part of the broad coalition pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, energized by young activists who call themselves Dreamers, a term that evokes King's 1963 speech. Many of these young people share the values, culture and aspirations of other American youth, but they feel, as King described the typical African American 50 years ago, like “an exile in his own land.”
National spending priorities: King called for significant cuts to military spending in order to fund a comprehensive plan to create jobs, rebuild cities, improve schools and lift the poor out of destitution. Some ideas in the "domestic Marshall Plan" that King supported was evident in President Biden's Build Back Batter legislation, designed to address the overlapping issues of jobs, poverty, child care, and climate change, but King would embrace even bolder ideas promoted by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Democratic Socialists of America.
Housing and predatory lending: Appalled by the slums, bank redlining, and blatant residential segregation in our major cities, especially in the North, King lobbied hard for anti-discrimination laws in the 1960s. Today, King would be equally outraged to learn that banks continue to discriminate against Black and Latino consumers. He’d be pleased by the Justice Department’s ruling this month to require the Los Angeles-based City National Bank to pay more than $31 million for refusing to underwrite mortgages in predominately Black and Latino communities.
King would be outraged by the growing numbers of homeless Americans - many of whom have jobs - in our cities. As part of his crusade the change national priorities, he'd call on Congress to increase the federal budget for subsidized housing that has never recovered by the slashes of the Reagan era. He’d be pleased by the growing activism around housing insecurity around the country. He'd link arms with activists fighting for rent control in cities around the country, and push local and state governments to reform zoning laws to allow more affordable and mixed-income housing to be built, especially by nonprofit developers. He'd have embraced the labor and housing activists in Los Angeles who in November won a ballot measure (with 58% of the vote) to raise the real estate transfer tax on all commercial office and apartment buildings and single-family mansions that sell for over $5 million in order to create a $900 million a year fund for housing construction and rent relief.
LGBT equality: Typical of most Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, King did not approve of homosexuality, even though his close adviser Bayard Rustin was openly gay. But when some civil rights leaders objected to Rustin's role as the key organizer of the March on Washington, worried that it would tarnish the movement, King insisted that Rustin stay in the job.
Since the 1960s, public opinion toward gay Americans has shifted dramatically. Had King encountered more openly gay men and women, his views probably would have evolved as well. After all, when King spoke out against state laws banning interracial marriage in 1958, he sounded a lot like those who advocate for same-sex marriage today: "When any society says that I cannot marry a certain person, that society has cut off a segment of my freedom."
Today, with the support of the NAACP and a growing number of black clergy members supporting gay rights, King would stand—and sit in when necessary—with the LGBT community to defend same-sex marriage and end other forms of discrimination against gay Americans.
Anti-Semitism: King had many Jewish friends and often expressed his appreciation for the close affinity between the black and Jewish communities. In 1958, speaking at a meeting of the American Jewish Congress, King said: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility. In 1964, King said: “It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom — it has been so great.”
King would be appalled by the upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents -- including shooting deaths and attempted murders at synagogues, Jewish stores, and Jewish homes, and growing acceptance of anti-Jewish stereotypes — during the past few years. He would be speaking out about the rise of white-supremacist and anti-Semitic hate groups, on display in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Colleyville, Texas, and many other cities, and emboldened by the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump.
The night before he was killed by an assassin, King spoke at a rally for the striking garbage workers in Memphis. He told the crowd about a bomb threat on his plane from Atlanta that morning, saying he knew that his life was in danger because of his political activism.
"I would like to live a long life," he said. "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land."
We haven't gotten there yet. The best way to honor his memory is to continue his struggle for social justice.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. He joined the Occidental faculty in January 1993 after serving for nine years as Director of Housing at the Boston Redevelopment Authority and senior policy advisor to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. He is the author of "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (2012) and an editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of "We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style" and co-author of "Baseball Rebels: The Players, People and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America" (2022).