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Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Radical, Not a Saint

It is easy to forget that in his day King was considered a dangerous troublemaker. He was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media.

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King had hoped that the bus boycott, sit-ins, and other forms of civil disobedience would stir white southern moderates, led by his fellow clergy, to see the immorality of segregation and racism. His famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written in 1963, outlines King's strategy of using nonviolent civil disobedience to force a response from the southern white establishment and to generate sympathy and support among white liberals and moderates. "The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation," he wrote, and added, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

King eventually realized that many white Americans had at least a psychological stake in perpetuating racism. He began to recognize that racial segregation was devised not only to oppress African Americans but also to keep working-class whites from challenging their own oppression by letting them feel superior to blacks. "The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow," King said from the Capitol steps in Montgomery, following the 1965 march from Selma. "And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man."

When King launched a civil rights campaign in Chicago in 1965, he was shocked by the hatred and violence expressed by working-class whites as he and his followers marched through the streets of segregated neighborhoods in Chicago and its suburbs. He saw that the problem in Chicago's ghetto was not legal segregation but "economic exploitation" -- slum housing, overpriced food, and low-wage jobs -- "because someone profits from its existence."

These experiences led King to develop a more radical outlook. King supported President Lyndon B. Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty in 1964, but, like his friend and ally Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers,  King thought that it did not go nearly far enough. As early as October 1964, he called for a "gigantic Marshall Plan" for the poor -- black and white. Two months later, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, he observed that the United States could learn much from Scandinavian "democratic socialism." He began talking openly about the need to confront "class issues," which he described as "the gulf between the haves and the have nots."

In 1966 King confided to his staff:

“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."

Given this view, King was dismayed when Malcolm X, SNCC's Stokely Carmichael, and others began advocating "black power," which he warned would alienate white allies and undermine a genuine interracial movement for economic justice.

King became increasingly committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. Invited to address the AFL-CIO's annual convention in 1961, King observed, "The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them." In a 1961 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, King proclaimed, "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." Speaking to a meeting of Teamsters union shop stewards in 1967, King said, "Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice."

 
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