NEUTRALIZING RADICALISM: Capitalism, War, and the Legacy of MLK

Each year around the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a familiar pattern seems to play out. First, the president issues a grandiose statement honoring King as a courageous hero who symbolized the heart of the American spirit, in the process identifying that presidential administration as the modern-day embodiment of King’s work. The statement exhorts US citizens to follow King’s example “by performing acts of kindness through service to others.”[1] Second, both Republicans and Democrats praise King’s tireless struggle against segregation and often, like the president, try to position themselves as the faithful heirs to his legacy.[2] Not surprisingly, the pattern seems to have held for this year as well: throughout January the president, the leading presidential candidates, and most of the mainstream press applauded King as a civil rights hero, making abundant references to his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and his struggle for racial equality.

Usually absent from the politicians’ speeches and newspaper editorials, though, are the more radical aspects of King’s life and thought—in particular, his fierce criticisms of economic inequality and military imperialism. Most descriptions of his life end around the time of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, saying little of the three years from 1966 to 1968 before King was assassinated.[3] There is an interesting reason for this omission: King’s last three years were in fact the most radical part of his life, the time when he increasingly began to see racism as one symptom of the capitalist system in the United States. Following the limited success of anti-discrimination legislation in improving the lot of the poor and oppressed, he expanded his critique of US society to a much more systematic indictment of what he called the “triple evils”: war, economic exploitation, and racism. Since these three evils were “interrelated,” King concluded that “the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.”[4]

The solution, he argued, must involve attacking poverty and economic exploitation at home and abroad, and even working toward a system of quasi-socialism including, among other measures, “a guaranteed national income.”[5] Rather than simply dishing out charity, though, King insisted on fundamental changes to the capitalist system, saying on many occasions that “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[6] During his final three years King devoted much of his time to organizing for economic justice in US slums and ghettoes, and was planning a large anti-poverty march on Washington just before he was killed in April 1968.

Starting in early 1967, King also became a very vocal opponent of the US war in Vietnam. He went well beyond most liberal commentary of the day—which criticized the war mainly as a costly “mistake”—by denouncing Vietnam as “one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world.”[7] He even condemned the US government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”[8] But more importantly, he understood that the war in Vietnam reflected systemic illnesses in US society. Having known and experienced racial discrimination firsthand for so many years, he saw how racism and its twin siblings nationalism and American exceptionalism had been used to stir up popular support for the invasion of Vietnam. Having witnessed so much poverty at home in the US, he understood as well that the war was “an enemy of the poor” for the way it drained money away from social programs and for how most of its victims were poor and working-class people on both sides of the conflict.[9] For King the war was “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” which could only be healed by renouncing the “triple evils” and committing ourselves as a nation to policies of peace, justice, and democracy.[10] Most fundamentally, he said, the new national ethos must be one of genuine human solidarity premised on the notion that “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[11]

Such words are rarely remembered in connection with Dr. King, however; more commonly they are associated with hippies, Communists, and other “extremists” and fringe elements in US society. In most political speeches, news coverage, and documentaries, this part of King’s life is consigned to the “memory hole.” The efforts to erase the most revolutionary aspects of King’s thought from popular memory reflect a broader trend in elite political culture. The same has been done to various other popular icons: Helen Keller is honored as a blind and deaf woman who learned how to speak, not as a socialist and fierce critic of US capitalism; George Orwell himself (who coined the term “memory hole”) is honored for his critiques of Soviet totalitarianism, not for his writings on propaganda and indoctrination in Western democracies. 

The reason why these details are omitted from news accounts and history textbooks is clear, and is particularly interesting in the case of Dr. King. Prior to 1966, King’s efforts had certainly helped defeat segregation and legal racism, but had stopped short of the type of message that would have posed a fundamental threat to the capitalist power structure in the United States. Although racism is in some ways fundamental to the maintenance of class inequalities under capitalism, formal segregation is not necessarily profitable from the perspective of corporate enterprise. In fact, maintaining segregated facilities and transportation was often quite inefficient economically. The defeat of overt, legally-explicit racism in this country therefore did not endanger the basic pillars of elite power. A domestic and global redistribution of wealth and/or a fundamental reform of US foreign policy (including, for example, adherence to international law) would have. When King became most threatening to that power structure he was quickly eliminated.[12] 

Politicians and the press certainly behaved as expected on MLK Day this year. A Washington Post editorial from January 21 is a case in point. The piece praises only King’s antiracism, saying nothing of his critiques of capitalism and imperialism. It even quotes several lines from the conclusion of King’s last speech on April 3, 1968, when he expressed optimism that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” But the editorial neglects to mention that in that very same speech and in many prior ones King also delivered vitriolic critiques of capitalist inequality and aggressive warfare. Ironically, and in a remark the Post editors evidently missed while reading over that speech, King also condemned the mainstream press for its subservience to government and big business. Newspapers, he said, “didn’t get around to” reporting on the struggle of striking Memphis sanitation workers for economic justice, instead vilifying the strikers as violent window-breakers.[13] Other editorials and reportage dealing with MLK Day ’07 followed a similar pattern.[14]

Conspicuously absent from the speeches and editorials were those elements of King’s thought which would be truly dangerous to the centers of economic and political power in this country. Instead, we are told, MLK Day is a time “to give others a hand.”[15] Following King’s legacy means simply attending a commemorative march, doing community service, and performing “acts of kindness.”[16] The message is clear: King’s peaceful struggle for racial equality is an “acceptable” form of protest (at least in retrospect); agitating against military imperialism and economic inequality is not. King’s message of nonviolence was fine when it was urging peaceful marches for racial equality, but it will not do to apply the principle of nonviolence to international relations or to criticize those responsible for the structural violence that inflicts poverty, malnutrition, and early death on billions of people around the world.

On the other hand, recovering and promoting the totality of King’s vision could inspire people to get involved in activism aimed at the real power centers in this country. King’s speeches and sermons from 1966-68 could hardly be more relevant to the current day. In an era of unprecedented corporate power, increasing global and domestic inequality, and savage militarism on the part of the world’s most powerful government, recovering King’s message is more important than ever.

At the same time that we look to Dr. King’s words, however, one additional lesson of the 1960s is equally important. Behind King and every other well-known popular leader whose words are recorded in speeches and books were literally hundreds of thousands of unsung heroes who gave strength to the civil rights, antiwar, and other movements. Ultimately it was not King himself but these people who were responsible for the successes of these movements, as Barbara Ehrenreich reminded us recently.[17] In the coming years peace and justice, if they are to be achieved, will come not from extraordinary leaders but from the committed efforts of working people around this country, who will remain largely uncelebrated but whose participation and leadership will be vital to the future achievements of any progressive social movement. But don’t expect to hear that message in the morning newspaper, either.


[1] White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday, 2008: A Proclamation by the President of the United States of America,” 16 Jan. 2008. Available from http://www.nationalservice.gov/about/newsroom/releases_detail.asp?tbl_pr_id=887.

[2] See, for example, Raymond Hernández, “At King Event, Mrs. Clinton Denounces G.O.P. Leadership,” New York Times, 17 Jan. 2006.

[3] See Note 14 below for an example from January 2008.

[4] “Where Do We Go From Here?” (1967), reprinted in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986), 250.

[5] “Where Do We Go From Here?”, 247.

[6] “Where Do We Go From Here?”, 250; “A Time to Break Silence,” 4 April 1967, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, 241.

[7] “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 31 Mar. 1967, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, 275.

[8] “A Time to Break Silence,” 233.

[9] Ibid., 233.

[10] Ibid., 240.

[11] “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” 24 Dec. 1967, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, 254.

[12] The same happened to Malcolm X: as long as he was rejecting collaboration with white activists he was relatively powerless to effect any large-scale redistribution of power in US society; when he started welcoming the help of sympathetic whites—and seeing the similarities in the struggles of working people of all colors—he was taken out. My thanks to Professor Alex Dupuy of Wesleyan University for pointing out this correlation to me in 2005.

[13] “Martin Luther King Jr.,” Washington Post, 21 Jan. 2008.

[14] “The Multifaceted King” (editorial), Boston Globe, 21 Jan. 2008, is a particularly ironic example since its authors forget to mention anti-imperialism and a yearning for socioeconomic justice as among King’s many “facets.”

[15] “King Day” (editorial), Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 Jan. 2008.

[16] For examples of newspaper editorials from 2007 which fit this theme, see “King Day of Service; No Gift is Too Small,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 Jan. 2007; Rob McCord, “Pursuing the Dream” (guest editorial), Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 Jan. 2007; “Martin Luther King Jr. Day; More Than Just a Day Off,” Washington Post, 15 Jan. 2007; Valerie Strauss, “Despite Lessons on King, Some Unaware of His Dream,” Washington Post, 15 Jan. 2007. Among the most hypocritical, of course, are those who invoke King’s legacy despite having supported—or even rabidly promoted—the US invasion of Iraq. Among intellectuals, Charles Krauthammer is a good example: Clinton’s Trouble,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 Jan. 2008.  

[17] “Hillary’s Real MLK Problem,” Huffington Post (online), 15 Jan. 2008. Available from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-ehrenreich/hillarys-real-mlk-proble_b_81608.html.

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