Not just civil rights: Here are 5 vitally important positions Dr. Martin Luther King took on economic justice

Not just civil rights: Here are 5 vitally important positions Dr. Martin Luther King took on economic justice
Image via Wikimedia Commons

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968 at the age of 39, the civil rights leader was not only fighting against racial segregation, he was also focused on economic justice and workers’ rights. King, in fact, was in Memphis to express his solidarity with sanitation workers who were on strike. And when one celebrates Martin Luther King Day, it is important to remember his economic views as well as his fight to end Jim Crow apartheid laws in the United States.


On Martin Luther King Day 2019, here are some important things to remember about Dr. King’s economic message.

1. King was unapologetically pro-union

The U.S. was much more heavily unionized in the 1960s than it is now; roughly one-third of Americans belonged to a union during the LBJ years compared to only 10.5% in 2018 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). King wanted to increase union membership in the U.S., and he found it appalling that in Memphis, some sanitation workers were having a hard time making ends meet despite working 60 hours per week. Supporting the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968, King declared, “Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organize and be recognized.”

2. King believed that labor rights and racial justice went hand in hand

When King was invited to speak at the AFL-CIO’s annual convention in 1961, he noted the parallels between the civil rights movement and the labor movement. King told AFL-CIO union members, “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

3. King favored universal health care

One of the greatest achievements of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society was Medicare, which established universal health care for Americans 65 and older. An outspoken opponent of Medicare, Ronald Reagan was on the wrong side of history; the program has been wildly popular. But King, on the other hand, not only wanted to insure seniors—he favored universal health care for Americans of all ages and saw it as an economic justice issue. Speaking at a convention for the Medical Committee for Human Rights in 1966, King asserted, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

4. King rejected communism but supported social democracy

King believed that it was important to study and understand the things one rejects, and that was how he approached communism and Marxist-Leninist ideology. In 1949, King studied the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin in order “to understand the appeal of communism for many people.” King said that he “carefully scrutinized” The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, but he found them flawed in many respects. King was decidedly anti-communist, rejecting the Soviet Union’s dogmatic atheism and totalitarianism. King complained, “Man becomes hardly more, in communism, than a depersonalized cog in the turning wheel of the state.”

However, MLK also realized that minus strong regulations and protections for workers, capitalism can become a recipe for abuse and exploitation. Like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, MLK believed in a free enterprise system that was participatory, not exclusionary.

5. King favored expanding the New Deal and the Great Society

When Sen. Bernie Sanders and his 29-year-old protégée, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, speak of “democratic socialism,” context is crucial. Neither Sanders nor Ocasio-Cortez favor Marxist-Leninist or Maoist ideology, but rather, capitalism with a strong social safety net—and their inspirations are FDR, President Lyndon B. Johnson and MLK, not Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung or Che Guevara. MLK firmly believed in the liberal programs of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society and favored expanding them. But since the 1980s, flawed economic theories like Reaganomics, trickle-down economics and neoliberalism have been making working conditions worse for most Americans—not better.

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