Every January on Martin Luther King Day, people across the political spectrum claim King as one of their own. Few remember that he had become a pariah in mainstream politics in his last days. He was widely condemned for his opposition to the Vietnam War. Right-wingers called him a communist and a traitor. Black leaders, white politicians who had been allies and the national press said he had gone outside his role as a civil rights leader.
The nation’s leading law enforcement official, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, conducted a vicious vendetta against King designed to destroy him by almost any means necessary. It was charged that he was the tool of a Soviet communist conspiracy to undermine America.
Actually King was consistently critical of the communist regimes throughout his life, but he was a democratic socialist, according to his widow and many of his friends and co-workers.
Thomas F. Jackson, in his book From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice, says King started becoming a socialist when he was in college. He argues that King was developing “democratic socialist alternatives to economic and poverty policy” in the 1960s. Instead of the “oversold and underfunded programs of the War on Poverty,” which came to be perceived by many white working-class and middle-class voters as attempts to placate an undeserving black urban underclass, King preferred policies that would include everybody and ensure “decent housing, medical care, guaranteed work, wages, and family incomes for all Americans.”
Sometimes King would start to talk about socialism and ask the reporter to turn off the tape recorder and go off the record. Other times, he would talk about socialism in his public talks. He was getting more and more bold.
In a 1967 presidential address to his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King asked some questions:
“There are 40 million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’ These are questions that need to be asked.”
In 1966, he told staffers at a SCLC retreat in South Carolina:
“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.”
In January 1968, King announced plans for a Poor People’s Campaign of sustained protest to pressure the White House and Congress to launch a genuine war on poverty. Protesters would engage in massive civil disobedience, tying up traffic, staging sit-ins in Congress and in government buildings and essentially shutting down business in Washington, D.C.
King was a dangerous man to the powers-that-be. For the rest of us, he should be an inspiration and a challenge. Today — in a time of grotesque inequality, high unemployment and low wages — he is more relevant than ever.
— Anderson is a retired CU librarian and a member of Democratic Socialists of America.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.