Remembering MLK's Fight For Democratic Socialism
Today marks another year of mourning and celebration for one of the greatest civil rights leaders of our time. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has been celebrated nationally since 1986, as a remembrance of the man who famously led the civil rights movement towards equality before his assassination in 1968. From childhood, we’ve heard history lessons about the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 Birmingham protests. The words “I have a dream” from the 1963 March on Washington established him as a beacon of hope, uniting millions on the long road to equal treatment under the eyes of the law.
Every year, Americans across the country spend the day reflecting on how much—and how little—progress has been made. It’s natural, given the past year’s epidemic of racism and police violence, to wonder if MLK’s dream has even come close to coming true. But that’s a conversation that seems to repeat itself annually. The familiar historical narrative has focused on his leadership of the civil rights movement, and the heroic protests he led. While these elements of King’s life are obviously immensely important, ignoring his final years does a disservice to his legacy.
In the pivotal last decade of his life, King became entrenched in a fierce battle against economic inequality, poverty, and the Vietnam War. It was through this struggle that he came to be associated with a label that’s been thrown around a lot the past year, as Bernie Sanders soared into the national spotlight in his fight for the Democratic nomination. That phrase? Democratic socialist.
That’s right. MLK Jr. was fighting against traditional capitalism in his final years of life, and he was fighting hard—but this wasn’t a mindset that began in the ’60s. In the summer of 1952, he penned a letter to Coretta Scott explaining his rapidly changing views.
“Today capitalism has outlived its usefulness,” he wrote. “It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”
A decade later, democratic socialism had become the guiding principle in King’s fight for equality, at the expense of his public image. The FBI tracked his movements, JFK compared him to Karl Marx, and Lyndon Johnson famously asked what that “goddamned n***** preacher” was doing to him after King called for a greater distribution of wealth. Throughout the backlash, King never backed down, and continued to advocate for the working class. He protested alongside union workers, and called for a “Grand Alliance” between working-class white and black people. Decades before activists would Occupy Wall Street, King began a Poor People’s Campaign, and called for a massive encampment of tents to spring up in Washington, D.C. Although he never lived to see this become a reality and faced intense backlash, his radical ideas sewed the seeds of democratic socialism, which have bloomed and flourished as Sanders forces the political establishment to grapple with a very honest critique of capitalism’s flaws.
On this, the thirty-year anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, remember him for his commitment to racial justice and equality under the civil rights movement, and reflect on King’s socialist democratic ideals. The best way to honor this heroic leader is to stand up, speak out, and fight for human dignity, workers’ rights, racial equality, peace, and social justice in whatever way you can.
Images via History and Robert W. Kelley.