A True and Visionary Radical, Martin Luther King Jr. Was No Moderate

Common Dreams – By Peter Dreier – Jan 16. 2023

King called himself a democratic socialist. He believed that America needed a “radical redistribution of economic and political power.”

In his absorbing profile of the writer Alex Haley (author of “Roots” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”) in the New York Times Book Review a year ago, Michael Patrick Hearn made a familiar mistake. He wrote: “Politically [Haley] he was a moderate, philosophically more Martin than Malcolm.”

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was no moderate. Today, he is viewed as something of an American saint. His name adorns schools and street signs. His birthday January 15, 1929 – is observed as a national holiday on the third Monday of January each year. This year as in year’s past, Americans from across the political spectrum invoke King’s name to justify their beliefs and actions.

But in his day, King was considered a dangerous troublemaker. Both Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson worried that King was being influenced by Communists. King was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media. The establishment’s campaign to denigrate King worked. In August 1966 – as King was bringing his civil rights campaign to Northern cities to address poverty, slums, housing segregation and bank lending discrimination—the Gallup Poll found that 63% of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of King, compared with 33% who viewed him favorably.

King called himself a democratic socialist. He believed that America needed a “radical redistribution of economic and political power.” He challenged America’s class system and its racial caste system. He opposed US militarism and imperialism, especially the country’s misadventure in Vietnam. He was a strong ally of the nation’s labor union movement. He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike.

King’s views evolved over time. He entered the public stage with some hesitation, reluctantly becoming the spokesperson for the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, at the age of 26. King began his activism in Montgomery as a crusader against racial segregation, but the struggle for civil rights radicalized him into a fighter for broader economic and social justice and peace.

During the early 1960s, the nation’s media accurately depicted both King and Malcolm X as threats to the status quo. But the media portrayed Malcolm X as an almost demonic force because he described white people as “devils,” and called on Black Americans to use self-defense – including violence, if necessary – to protect themselves from racist thugs and police brutality. King – a proponent of nonviolent civil disobedience and racial integration – 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.

Just as King’s views evolved over the years, Malcolm X’s ideas changed, too. Toward the end of his life, he had rejected Black separatism and by-any-means-necessary tactics. In 1963, he traveled to Africa, the Middle East and Europe, where he met radical white people whose political ideas he agreed with. When he was in Ghana, someone asked him “What do you think about socialism?” Malcolm X asked: “Is it good for Black people?” “It seems to be,” came the response. “Then I’m for it,” Malcolm X said.

In 1964 he broke with the Nation of Islam and rejected its policy of non-cooperation with the civil rights movement. He reached out to King and other civil rights leaders.

When Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, King sent this message to his wife: “I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.”

In reviewing King’s life, we can see that the seeds of his later radicalism were planted early.

King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929, the son of a prominent black minister. Despite growing up in a solidly middle-class family, King saw the widespread human suffering caused by the Depression, particularly in the black community. In 1950, while in graduate school, he wrote an essay describing the “anticapitalistic feelings” he experienced as a youngster as a result of seeing unemployed people standing in breadlines.

During King’s first year at Morehouse College, civil rights and labor activist A. Philip Randolph spoke on campus. Randolph predicted that the near future would witness a global struggle that would end white supremacy and capitalism. He urged the students to link up with “the people in the shacks and the hovels,” who, although “poor in property,” were “rich in spirit.”

After graduating from Morehouse in 1948, King studied theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania (where he read both Mohandas Gandhi and Karl Marx), planning to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the ministry. In 1955, he earned his doctorate from Boston University, where he studied the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential liberal theologian. While in Boston, he told his girlfriend (and future wife), Coretta Scott, that “a society based on making all the money you can and ignoring people’s needs is wrong.”

When King moved to Montgomery to take his first pulpit at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he was full of ideas but had no practical experience in politics or activism. But history sneaked up on him. On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress and veteran activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), decided to resist the city’s segregation law by refusing to move to the back of the bus on her way home from work. She was arrested. Two other long-term activists – E. D. Nixon (leader of the NAACP and of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and Jo Ann Robinson (a professor at the all-black Alabama State College and a leader of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council)—determined that Parks’ arrest was a ripe opportunity for a one-day boycott of the much-despised segregated bus system. Nixon and Robinson asked black ministers to use their Sunday sermons to spread the word. Some refused, but many others, including King, agreed.

The boycott was very effective. Most black residents stayed off the buses. Within days, the boycott leaders formed a new group, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). At Nixon’s urging, they elected a hesitant King as president, in large part because he was new in town and not embroiled in the competition for congregants and visibility among black ministers. He was also well educated and already a brilliant orator, and thus would be a good public face for the protest movement. The ministers differed over whether to call off the boycott after one day but agreed to put the question up to a vote at a mass meeting.

That night, 7,000 blacks crowded into (and stood outside) the Holt Street Baptist Church. Inspired by King’s words—”There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression”—they voted unanimously to continue the boycott. It lasted for 381 days and resulted in the desegregation of the city’s buses.

During that time, King honed his leadership skills, aided by advice from two veteran organizers, Bayard Rustin and Rev. Glenn Smiley, who had been sent to Montgomery by the pacifist group, Fellowship of Reconciliation. During the boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, and he was subjected to personal abuse. But – with the assistance of the new medium of television – he emerged as a national figure.

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Posted by Teri Perticone


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