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 		 [A new book argues that King’s suspicion of American capitalism
and his passion for economic justice did not represent a turn in his
last tumultuous years. They were there all along.]
[https://portside.org/] 

 THE YOUNG MLK ALREADY HAD SOCIALIST IDEAS  
[https://portside.org/2018-07-27/young-mlk-already-had-socialist-ideas]


 

 Lynn Parramore 
 May 5, 2018
Institute for New Economic Thinking
[https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/was-martin-luther-king-a-socialist-new-book-may-surprise-you]


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 _ A new book argues that King’s suspicion of American capitalism
and his passion for economic justice did not represent a turn in his
last tumultuous years. They were there all along. _ 

 , 

 

The Millennial socialists are coming,” declared a June 30 _New York
Times _headline
[https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/30/opinion/democratic-socialists-progressive-democratic-party-trump.html],
describing a surprise surge of young female candidates endorsed by the
Democratic Socialists of America who beat their establishment
opponents in primary races in New York and Pennsylvania. No longer is
being a socialist considered scary — at least if you came of age
after the Fall of the Wall. For many, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Martin Luther King, Jr., if he were around today, would likely be
smiling.

The image of the handsome, be-suited King, looking like a middle-class
messenger of the American Dream as he mesmerized the masses on the
steps of the Lincoln memorial with his famous “I Have a Dream”
speech, has been embraced by everyone from Coca-Cola executives to
Donald Trump. It’s part of America’s cultural memory, our
political DNA.

Some may know that there was more to his legacy than the epic fight to
end racism, recalling that in the period leading up to his
assassination in 1968, King focused on building a multi-racial
movement for economic justice with his labor activism and Poor
People’s Campaign.

But even that view, argues Michael Honey
[http://faculty.washington.edu/mhoney/] in his new book, _To the
Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice_
[http://books.wwnorton.com/books/To-the-Promised-Land/], does not
capture the whole story.

Consider King’s words in a letter to Coretta Scott in 1952: “I am
much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic,” he
wrote, adding that capitalism had “out-lived its usefulness”
because it had “brought about a system that takes necessities from
the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”

King was 23 years old when he wrote that.

The same year, his future spouse sent him a copy of Edward Bellamy’s
utopian socialist novel of 1888, _Looking Backward_. King wrote to
her with revolutionary fervor: “Let us continue to hope, work, and
pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better
distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or
color…This is the gospel that I will preach to the world.”

King’s suspicion of American capitalism and his passion
for economic justice did not represent a turn in his last tumultuous
years, argues Honey, Haley Professor of Humanities at the University
of Washington Tacoma. They were there all along.

Beyond the suit-and-tie King appealing for racial equality was a man
in blue jeans marching alongside laborers, sitting in jail cells, and
rousing workers on picket lines. This was a man keenly aware, observes
Honey, that he was descended from “African American and Irish
dirt-poor people who lived the American nightmare.” He had seen the
horror of Depression-era breadlines that contributed to what King
described as his “anti-capitalistic feelings.” Honey notes that as
a teenager in the 1940s, King worked at a southern factory but quit
after the foreman called him a “nigger.” When he worked on a
tobacco farm up North, he saw first-hand that abusers of the poor were
racially indiscriminate in their exploitation.

As a college student, King wrote a paper declaring that racial
injustice and economic injustice were inseparable twins.

So if King was an economic radical from the beginning, why don’t we
know more about it?

Honey, who was an organizer in Memphis in the years following King’s
death, describes how his own view shifted in 1994 when he found a file
of King’s labor speeches in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for
Nonviolent Social Change library in Atlanta. These speeches gave him
insight into how King and his colleagues built alliances with workers
and organized labor and made him want to learn more about that
history, which his new book brings to life.

He says that the reason MLK’s legacy has been misunderstood has to
do with political and cultural forces in King’s time and in our own.

Honey points out that civil rights leaders who rose to prominence
before King, like W.E.B. Du Bois and Ella Baker, explicitly linked
racism to economic injustice, but that line of thinking became taboo
during the Red Scare. King, explains Honey, was a pragmatist who saw
that it would not be possible to make progress on poverty until black
people were able to vote and wield political power. So he devoted his
efforts to securing civil rights as the first step in a movement to
turn America into a place where poor people of all colors would one
day be empowered.

On February 18, 1957, _Time _magazine put a picture of King on its
cover, describing him as “expert organizer” but “no radical.”
Honey says that _Time_ was actually wrong on both counts: his
strength lay more in visionary and oratory power than organizing
prowess, and he was certainly radical in his thinking. Nevertheless, a
journalistic version of King emerged that painted him as a civil
rights leader who became increasingly radical after the Vietnam War, a
long-accepted picture that scholars have begun to challenge in recent
years. (See: Vincent Harding’s _Martin Luther King:
The_ _Inconvenient Hero_
[https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CMC6AN0/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1] and _Misremembering
Dr. King_
[http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=807339],
by Jennifer J. Yanco).

Honey notes that Coretta Scott King kept her husband’s letters and
early sermons, in which he expressed support for ideas like the
“nationalization of industry,” in a box in her basement for over
thirty years after he died, a move that may have been inspired by
anxiety that his radical views of capitalism would be used by the
American right wing to tarnish his legacy. Which is very likely true.

So was King an actual socialist? When I ask this question, Honey
points me to the 1952 letters to Coretta. “Well, it’s pretty clear
there, isn’t it? He’s probably a “small ‘d,’ small ‘s’
democratic socialist, but he’s also a pragmatist who wanted to
change things for poor people and bring them things like free college
education and free health care.”

These are, of course, the very same ideas that many Americans cheered
when they came from the lips of Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders in
his surprisingly successful 2016 run for president.

Honey emphasizes that King was first and foremost a Christian, and
that he operated from a framework heavily influenced by the Social
Gospel tradition, which began as a critique of American capitalism in
the late 19th century when many religious people grew disgusted by the
industrial conditions of poor and working class people. Honey writes
that King’s father, also a minister, “saw his main mission as
serving the poor…and passed that on to his congregation and his
family.”

It might have once been true that King’s economic radicalism could
tarnish his legacy, but in an era of rampant and rising inequality,
that same aspect of his thinking might now serve to burnish it. Many
contemporary Americans, Honey points out, are interested in a broad
restructuring of society and eager to take on economic impoverishment
along with mass incarceration, police brutality, and “the most
pernicious aspects of both Jim Crow capitalism in the South and racial
capitalism in the North.”

As the recent election results suggest, King the economic radical has
renewed relevance, and Honey’s work helps to shift him from static
icon to dynamic thinker whose vision can guide us in taking on the
grossly unfair aspects of American capitalism.

Honey’s work suggests the true dimensions of King’s legacy and
what realizing it would mean. If we are not serious about the
redistribution of wealth and power, we are not fully honoring MLK. 

_Lynn Parramore
[https://www.ineteconomics.org/research/experts/lynnparramore] is
Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. A
cultural theorist who studies the intersection of culture and
economics, she is Contributing Editor at AlterNet, where she received
the Bill Moyers/Schumann Foundation fellowship in journalism for 2012.
She is also a frequent contributor to Reuters, Al Jazeera, Salon,
Huffington Post, and other outlets. Her first book of cultural
history, Reading the Sphinx (Palgrave Macmillan) was named a
“Notable Scholarly Book for 2008” by the Chronicle of Higher
Education. A web entrepreneur, Parramore is co-founder of the Next New
Deal (formerly New Deal 2.0) blog of the Roosevelt Institute, where
she served as media fellow from 2009-2011, and she is also co-founder
of RECESSIONWIRE.COM [http://recessionwire.com/], and founding editor
of IGOUGO.COM [http://igougo.com/]. Parramore received her doctorate
from New York University in 2007. She has taught writing and semiotics
at NYU and has collaborated with some of the country’s leading
economists her ebooks, including “Corporations for the 99%” with
William Lazonick and “New Economic Visions” with Gar Alperovitz.
In 2011, she co-edited a key documentary book on the Occupy
movement: The 99%: How the Occupy Movement is Changing America._

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