Every January we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, a great civil rights leader. A man the majority of Americans view in a positive light. His birthday is a national holiday. His name adorns schools and street signs. In 1964, at age 35, he was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
And he was a Democratic socialist.
It is important to remember that the civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was also a democratic socialist, committed to building a broad movement to overcome the failings of capitalism and achieve both racial and economic equality for all people.
In Where Do We Go From Here, which calls for “the full emancipation and equality of Negroes and the poor,” King advocates policies in line with a democratic socialist program: a guaranteed annual income, constitutional amendments to secure social and economic equality, and greatly expanded public housing. He endorses the Freedom Budget put forward by socialist activist A. Philip Randolph, which included such policies as a jobs guarantee, a living wage and universal healthcare. He also outlines how economic inequality can circumscribe civil rights. While the wealthy enjoy easy access to lawyers and the courts, “the poor, however, are helpless,” he writes.
This emphasis on poverty is not always reflected in contemporary teachings about King, which tend to focus strictly on his advocacy for civil rights. But Where Do We Go From Here and the final project of King’s life — the Poor People’s Campaign — show that King’s dream included a future of both racial and economic equality.
“What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter,” King is widely quoted as asking, “if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?” In King’s view, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, the voter registration drives across the South and the Selma to Montgomery march comprised but the first phase of the civil rights movement. In Where Do We Go From Here, King called the victories of the movement up that point in 1967 “a foothold, no more” in the struggle for freedom. Only a campaign to realize economic as well as racial justice could win true equality for African-Americans. In naming his goal, King was unflinching: the “total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.”
The shortcoming of the first phase of the civil rights movement, to King, was its emphasis on opportunity rather than guarantees. The ability to buy a hamburger at a lunch counter without harassment did not guarantee that the hungry would be fed. Access to the ballot box did not guarantee anti-racist legislation. The end of Jim Crow laws did not guarantee the flourishing of African-American communities. Decency did not guarantee equality.
For King, the only solution to America’s crisis of poverty was the redistribution of wealth. In a 1961 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, King declared, “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.”
From his early letters to Coretta Scott until his final days, King put forward a vision of a society that provides equality for people of all races and backgrounds. This is the cause King spent his life fighting for. And it is one we should recommit to as we honor his legacy.(Excerpted from “In These Times” The Forgotten Socialist History of Martin Luther King Jr. King By Matthew Miles Goodrich)